One of the great passages in modern poetry occurs in the opening section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the section called “The Burial of the Dead”:
… There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
I remember when I first read this in college. It struck me then — as it still does — as a most ingenious and effective representation of existential terror. I thought of it again early one morning last week.
I get up very early, usually around 5 a.m. On this particular morning I awoke not just from sleep, but from a dream. The details of the dream have become vague, but it had something to do with an experience — in the dream — of déjà vu. In the dream, apparently, I suddenly found myself being somewhere I had been before and doing something I had done before. I have no idea if it had anything to do with something I actually had done or somewhere I had actually been.
This experience was accompanied — in the dream — by what I can only call terror, an encompassing and saturating fear, a sense that at the very heart of being alive lies a profound fear born … of being alive. And it was this, this terror, that I experienced upon waking.
It was not easy to shake off. It lurked in some remote corner of my mind all day. Eliot’s lines came to me as I was making coffee, and kept coming back to me throughout the day.
Readers of this column will know that I am in the habit of wondering at times if everything we think we know about life and the world is perhaps entirely wrong, that reason and even experience are not necessarily reliable guides to understanding.
This thought also occurred to me throughout that day last week, which seems hardly surprising. After all, it is pretty unsettling to think that, not only do we not know what is going on, but that we can never know. This is doubt both undiluted and pervasive.
John Henry Newman defined faith as meaning “being capable of bearing doubt.” But this degree of doubt is pretty unbearable, and I honestly cannot say that faith was much help in dealing with it. I felt more like the character in Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I must go on. I’ll go on.”
My spirits did lift somewhat, though, on Sunday at the sung Latin Mass that I attend. I think it had something to do with participating in an ancient tradition. It may not have strengthened my faith, but it gave me hope that such devotion over so many centuries has not been in vain.
But then something happened that gave me just what I needed: one single certainty.
There was a woman in a pew near me. She is there every week in the same pew. She needs a walker to get around, and it is difficult for her to make it to the altar to take communion. Usually, there is a fellow in the pew in front of her who helps her. But he wasn’t there yesterday.
So I offered her my arm, and we went to the altar and back together.
Obviously, there is nothing at all extraordinary in what I did. It was pretty commonsensical, in fact. But it still can be placed fairly under the rubric of kindness.
And it was kindness that I began to think of, not my ostensible kindness in this case, but kindness in general. And the thought that occurred to me is that kindness is real and good and has value to both the giver and the receiver of it.
For kindness is more than one person doing something for another. The accepting of a kindness is every bit as important as the offering of it, because the acceptance closes the circuit of the encounter. The very sweet smile that woman gave me yesterday brightened my whole day.
That, more than anything, convinced me that there is at least one thing certain: Everything else we think we know may be open to question, but plain and simple kindness is irreducibly true and real.