Why should we not be as crazy as a mad dog? Why should we not do every fearful and horrific thing imaginable, once we have awakened to the central horror of our existence, the ultimate betrayal: that this world, our mother, the world which gave us birth and gives us every pleasure and beauty, which we love as fervently and terribly as we can love any being, will one day kill us without a second thought? That we are to the world we love no more than our own cattle are to us: she tends us, helps us grow, even sacrifices for us so that we may be plentiful, all with our ultimate destination already in mind: the slaughterhouse. The individual is nothing to her; the race is all, and even our species is worth no more than any other in terms of the care lavished on its physical environment.
But once we became aware of ourselves, and more stupidly, in love with ourselves as individuals, we became her enemy. And our own, because regardless of how much we throw our weight around while we’re here, she still kills us. We torture others to get at her, and they suffer, but she is indifferent. We could turn this planet into a cinder; the boundless universe would keep on whirling in silence.
The great storyteller Flannery O’Connor believed that unless you held to the absolute truth of a redeeming love that transcended the finality of death as the guiding principle of this world, you would be capable of anything, because the world and your own existence in it would have no point. Out of sheer outrage at this terrifying betrayal by your first mother, this final sentence that was imposed universally without any regard for its appropriateness, you would go mad, you would kill indiscriminately, or really, you might just as well do that as anything else.
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she gives us this insight with her usual deadpan grotesquerie, a style that is like a costume for truth, dressing it in ironic rags so that it can be revealed only to the perceptive, to those who wish to find it. The Misfit is the wise devil whose intelligence has led him to comprehend God’s truth perfectly, without being able to believe it. So he obligingly acts out the logical consequences, killing the family—whom O’Connor takes care to make dysfunctional and unsympathetic, but no worse than average human beings– fate puts at his mercy, with glum determination.
O’Connor believed that Jesus Christ was the unique embodiment of this principle of purpose-generating love. For me the source of the principle remains a mystery, but I see, perhaps for the first time, what she meant. The existentialists came to the same crossroads; their answer was a stoic resignation before the absurdity, and a Promethean and Herculean endeavor to find sense in the ability of humans to choose to act as if their best values mattered, even if they weren’t to be found anywhere in nature, even if there was no God to impose them.
This is noble, but it isn’t enough of a counterweight to our madness and fear. My own answer is to have heard, once or twice, the universe saying softly: “It’s all right,” when my consciousness was expanded enough to hear it. It didn’t feel delusional: it happened when I wasn’t looking for that answer, or for any response at all—I wasn’t asking a question. And in no way was I consciously seeking some justification or affirmation of my own personal existence. But I think everyone is asking that question consciously or unconsciously, most of their lives: “Is it all right? Does it make sense?”
And our limited consciousness doesn’t permit us to hear that the answer is always being spoken; we have to create these elaborate historical theologies and ideologies, we have to create a Big Cop in the sky to force ourselves to believe. I don’t want that. I would like to continue to discover places and times where I can hear that soundless voice speaking from the heart of the world, if only a few more in this life. Even if I never understand more about it than I do now, that will be enough.
And, of course, it will have to be.