“We know that the salvation of man is perhaps impossible. But that, we insist, that is no reason to stop seeking it . . . . There is only one thing left to try: the simple, modest path of honesty without illusion, of wise loyalty, of tenacity, which strengthens only human dignity. We believe that idealism is in vain.” — Albert Camus, 4 November 1944 in Combat, a journal of resistance in occupied France
When I was nineteen I met a man who seemed to know everything about his job. I was going to college in England that year, and was traveling on the Continent during the winter break. It was in Rome, at the central Termini train station, close to midnight when the shifts changed, that I saw him take his place. He walked in from the back of the ticket facility, sat down, and with nothing in front of him began to answer questions, now in Italian, now in German, now in French, Spanish, and English. His left arm rested on the desk in front of him, his gaze shifted only from one face to another in the line of waiting customers. He was not selling train tickets, he was simply answering questions. He spoke rapidly, with a slight frown on his face, as if these were matters of such little consequence that people could figure them out on their own if only they had the patience. He was directing travelers to many different platforms, for trains leaving at this time, arriving at that time, with stops here and here, with luggage restrictions, passes to the hospitality car, and whether one could sleep on the train; all were answered coolly, without moving a muscle.
He was not one to consult tables, schedules, maps, or memos. And while he did not raise his voice nor act as if the burden of saving such benighted souls was too much to bear, neither did he lack authority. These days a man in his position would have three screens, a database or two, a printed edition of that month’s schedules, and a map of the walking tours of Roma. His authority came from his knowledge, gathered in experience, offered up without charge.
I was vastly impressed. I wanted to be that knowledgeable about something—anything! An innocent abroad, I was receptive to anything that moved. Constantly observing the particulars of the countries I was traveling through, I sought for the generalities that would allow for pronouncements: “Italians do this, Germans do that. . . . a French person would never be caught dead doing this. . . .” And so on.
I was also breathing in a volatile mix of the Gospels, Albert Camus, Henry David Thoreau, and the poets of the Romantic period. From the Gospels there gradually rose to light, like a photo print wavering into solidity under the chemical baths of the darkroom, the figure of Jesus. In my reading he was compassionate but tough, a man accustomed to sorrow and not afraid to die. I loved him and fancied that we might be friends. He seemed to me solid at the core, a man whose truth was won through experience and whose silence spoke of strength.
Camus, like Jesus, offered a clear-eyed vision of the world, but with considerably less comfort. If Jesus spoke of love, Camus hinted at compassion. Of the two virtues love was the ideal always out of reach, compassion closer to hand. Camus was a realist, skeptical of certainty, feet on the ground, a heart throbbing with intensity, holding suicide at arms’ length while he soberly examined it. In my exalted romanticism I could not foresee life past 30. There were no words for that kind of sanguine capitulation to the commonplace and so I bravely bore myself along in the present, marching to Thoreau’s ‘different drummer’ and reveling in the ‘buzzing, blooming confusion of life.’
I had no certainty about anything, no real knowledge, no convictions that could bear the scrutiny of hard questioning. What I had were longings dressed as hopes and the assurance that comes from innocence. I knew that my Redeemer lived, and if I was not willing to answer the street preachers in Berkeley who asked if I was saved, it was not for lack of faith but rather from a stubborn trust that honesty was the best policy. Who could know for sure, for absolute certain? My best bet was to reveal all—doubts, fears, hopes—but to Jesus alone, not to my community, so that my life would be authentic if nothing else.
I can see now that my fascination with the answer man in the Termini central train station in Rome was a mix of envy, longing, and doubt. Envy at the vast amount of information he had mastered, longing to have mastered something, and doubt as to the possibility of mastering anything. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect’ hummed like an electrical charge through the wires that fenced me off from the wide world. An impossible command, like asking donkeys to fly. Better by far, I thought, was Camus’ quiet challenge: ‘This is a question of serving the dignity of man by methods that remain dignified in the midst of a history that is not.’
But the recognition that pursuing perfection in the spiritual life just as soon leads to perdition does not mean one escapes the anxiety of falling short in all the other areas of life. How can I claim to be a ‘professor’ when I do not know or have forgotten much of what I profess? How to explain the contradictions in one’s life that fracture our reflections like broken mirrors? Do we ever act from motives untainted by self-interest? Am I making a difference in this world?
I was moved by Camus because he refused to buy cheap grace nor was he willing to give in to a self-indulgent despair. He had, in Jacques Barzun’s phrase, a ‘cheerful pessimism’ that was unyielding in its hope for humankind. He was a philosopher of the street, keeping his senses alive, rejoicing in life and the struggle for honesty. He shared with another of my philosopher ancestors, Gabriel Marcel, the ability to learn at each bend of the path through life. Marcel, in a passage that has become something of a sacred mantra in my life, speaks in quiet exaltation when he prays:
“O spirit of metamorphosis! When we try to obliterate the frontier of clouds which separates us from the other world guide our unpracticed movements! And, when the given hour shall strike, arouse us, eager as the traveller who straps on his rucksack while beyond the misty windowpane the earliest rays of dawn are faintly visible!”
Marcel, like Camus, was writing in Paris in 1944. Both had lived through the occupation and liberation and both were sifting for hope amidst the confusion and bitterness of post-war France. Marcel, the Christian, found it in a personal vision of Jesus and the community as the body of Christ. Camus, the reluctant atheist, found it in a refusal to capitulate to evil and in solidarity with others. We do not have to be perfect nor can we know everything. But I find myself—truly I find myself—in the company of those whose doubt and uncertainties attract, like a magnet, the filings of faith.