In The Eighth Day, Thornton Wilder writes, “We did not choose the day of our birth nor may we choose the day of our death, yet choice is the sovereign faculty of the mind. We did not choose our parents, color, sex, health or endowments. We were shaken into existence, like dice from a box.”
Exercising choice, I gravitated early towards the movies of Fred Zinnemann. I realized only years later that a singular voice runs through his remarkable body of work. The singular, lonely voice of our conscience. Many if not most of us choose to lead lives floating in a comfortable fog of complacency. We rarely allow ourselves to question whether we have the wherewithal to embody the values we claim to hold dear, typically values of compassion, courage, decency, honor, and reciprocity. Few among us let ourselves be faced with the stark choice that Will Kane confronts in High Noon.
It is 10:30 in the morning. The seemingly well-respected, newly married small town sheriff, Will Kane, learns that Frank Miller, a vicious killer he put away, has received a pardon and will be back in town on the noon train. The killer has long vowed his revenge, and there is no doubt that revenge is on its way. Respected townsfolk and pacifist Quaker new wife alike urge Kane to flee. Why? After all, Kane and the town face only the four men, Miller and his three henchmen. With fortitude, Kane stares down his crisis of conscience and chooses to stay. One by one, Kane‘s erstwhile respectable fellow citizens fall back and fade away. We love to proclaim loudly that we hold certain values dear, values such as civic responsibility, honor, and heroism. In High Noon, director Fred Zinnemann, writer Carl Foreman and producer Stanley Kramer remind us that often when we are called upon to exercise our most cherished ideals about ourselves, they rapidly fade like morning mist in the harsh light of the dawning sun. Kane is left alone to face his impending violent fate, a gruesome death at the hands of a vicious killer.
In the The Eighth Day, Thornton Wilder writes, “Men and women of faith: their principal characteristics do not tend to render them conspicuous. Only from time to time one or other of them is propelled by circumstance into becoming visible – blindingly visible…They are not afraid; they are not self-regarding; they are constantly nourished by astonishment and wonder at life itself. They are not interesting. They lack those traits – our bosom companions – that so strongly engage our interest: aggression, the dominating will, envy, destructiveness and self-destructiveness. No pathos hovers about them. Try as hard as you like, you cannot see them as the subjects of tragedy. They have little sense of humor, which draws so heavily on a consciousness of superiority and on an aloofness from the predicament of others. In general they are inarticulate, especially in matters of faith. The intellectual qualifications for faith are developed and fortified by a ranging observation and a retentive memory – Faith founded schools; it is not dependent on them…These men and women with the aid of observation and memory early encompass a large landscape. They know themselves, but their self is not the only window through which they view their existence. They are certain that one small part of what is given is free. They explore daily the exercise of freedom. Their eyes are on the future. When the evil hour comes, they hold. They save cities – or, having failed, their example saves other cities after their death. They confront injustice. They assemble and inspirit the despairing…They are slow to give words to the object of their faith. To them it is self-evident and the self-evident is not easily described. But men and women without faith, they are articulate. They are constantly and loudly expatiating on it: it is ‘faith in life’, in the ‘meaning of life’, in God, in progress, in humanity – all those whipped words, those twisted sign-posts, that borrowed finery, all that traitor’s eloquence.”
In the 1st four stanzas of A. E. Housman‘s More Poems‘ Poem II, we see the stark difference that attends the choice of life journey between those who hear the siren song of prophecy and follow a prophetic lodestar, and those who don’t:
“When Israel out of Egypt came
Safe in the sea they trod;
By day in cloud, by night in flame,
Went on before them God.
He brought them with a stretched out hand
Dry-footed through the foam,
Past sword and famine, rock and sand,
Lust and rebellion, home.
I never over Horeb heard
The blast of advent blow;
No fire-faced prophet brought me word
Which way behoved me go.
Ascended is the cloudy flame,
The mount of thunder dumb;
The tokens that to Israel came,
To me they have not come.”
Housman‘s me cannot choose the pre-ordained path of self-righteous certitude laid out by an almighty all-knowing. Housman‘s me must choose a path hewn from their own efforts through sheer dint of purpose and self-realized conviction. Housman‘s verse portends the somewhat perennial outsider perspective that attends those among us who never hear the siren song of prophecy, and who never see the proverbial lodestar.
Regardless whether we choose a pre-ordained path or one more of our making, we each face an inevitable moment when we are confronted with stark wrongdoing in our daily life. What do we do during this inevitable crisis of conscience? Ah, there lies the rub! Do we submit and let circumstance master us? Or do we instead let our conscience dictate the course? Life is not usually a stark choice between black and white, we are told repeatedly. Anodyne words meant to anesthetize us away from the pain of reality! My life experience suggests instead that to follow one’s conscience is a choice needing to be exercised daily, in decisions big and small. It is not that circumstances that test our conscience are rare. Rather it is that we choose to make them so. How is that, one might well ask? It is dead easy. We simply have to starkly pretend that by closing the mind’s eyes, the choice facing our conscience does not exist. What are choices that we might face in our daily life that could test our conscience, one might ask? Well, for instance, what do we do when we witness wrongdoing in our lives, among our family, friends and colleagues? What kind of wrongdoing, one might ask? It could run the gamut from witnessing abusive behavior at home to witnessing unethical, even illegal, practices at work. Do we continue on quietly or do we speak up? To continue on quietly is easily rationalized and is what most of us indeed choose. After all, the status quo has an inertia all its own: established relationships, quid pro quos, the reluctance to engage with the uncertainty that attends any change, the reluctance to acknowledge one’s own lack of courage at the moment of truth, the list goes on.
It is one thing to claim to hold certain values dear, quite another to adhere to those values when exigent circumstance starkly confronts us with the predicament of choosing to live our values. The latter choice requires untoward courage. We are bombarded by a plethora of slogans such as “walk the walk and talk the talk” that exhort us to do right. However, what such popular slogans conveniently fail to convey is that such courage is precisely deeply unwelcome. The most difficult choices are usually ones that mandate stoicism, and that render us shunned, not popular. When the Will Kanes among us heed the voice of their conscience, they are starkly alone. This is the norm, not the exception. It is a stark decision to follow one’s conscience. It is also equally likely that we will not find many supporters.
Helping to design New York’s Central Park and the Stanford University campus among others, Frederick Law Olmsted was the pre-eminent shaper of the American Landscape. Witold Rybczynski titled his biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, “A Clearing in the Distance“. An evocative title indeed. In an entirely different context altogether, my own life experience has taught me that following stark choices dictated by one’s conscience often leads to “A Clearing in the Nearness“. Indeed to quote Olmstead himself, “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future“. Once the die is cast, those among us who make a difficult moral choice searingly realize that one has crossed the proverbial Rubicon and that life thenceforth is never the same, because the circle of trust is now ever so small, since so few manage to cross the Rubicon with us.
Dag Hammarskjöld wrote, “Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness, toil its desolation. And so keep alive the incentive to push on further, that pain in the soul, which drives us beyond ourselves. Whither? That I don’t know. That I don’t ask to know.”. Dag Hammarskjöld! That much admired (by freedom lovers) and much feared (by quasi-imperialists) statesman. We now know that he is one who certainly seems to have heeded the voice of his conscience to his death.
As children, we drink in every element of the life around us. What each of us experiences in our formative years is our unique normal. It is up to us to question every element of our unique normal, and to tease from it such kernels of universal truth as it is within our capacity to discern. Such an exercise is essential if we are to inculcate within us the capacity to heed the voice of our conscience at that inevitable moment when it comes calling.
Post by Tirumalai Kamala:
Identity Part Two
Our Conscience, our most reliable lodestar
Identity Part Two
Our Conscience, our most reliable lodestar