On May 25th, 108 people were killed in the Houla Massacre in Syria. Another recent act of “senseless violence” (that phrase we often use to shield ourselves from the possible truth that all killing of humans is without sense). Events like these may increase our sense of despair, and make us wonder whether there’s really a point to the work we do. Do we ever make progress?
I’d like to offer some consolation. I recently visited New Harmony, Indiana. This small town on the Wabash River advertises itself as a place for spiritual seekers and seekers of social justice. In the early 19th century, New Harmony was created as utopian community by Robert Owen (1771-1858), industrialist and social reformer. It was intended as a radically egalitarian, socialist community. By all accounts, the experiment failed after only a few years.
Wait. Where’s the consolation?
Bear with me. While in New Harmony, I walked a labyrinth. To be precise, this labyrinth (based on the pattern found in the Cathedral of Chartres):
As I entered the labyrinth, the question on my mind was, “Why make the effort?” For instance, why fight for social justice? Why attempt to learn to love? Why not simply give up, and delight in and embrace one’s privileges?
And the labyrinth seemed to agree with my doubts—note the path’s outline: oh yes, initially your steps seems to lead to the center; you come so very close to, well, making sense of it all, finding the center (the place of certainty, of value, of “Yes, my life and my work make sense and there’s a point in striving for a better world.”) But then the path moves away from the center. So close, but unattainable. The labyrinth leads you, or so it seems, further and further away from the center.
What? Where’s the consolation you promised? This is getting worse and worse with every step.
Again, bear with me. Keep in mind, a labyrinth is not a maze. You see, a maze is filled with dead ends, designed to lead you astray, lead you to despair. But you can trust a labyrinth. It appears the path is leading away from the goal, but follow it patiently, and you will eventually reach the center.
How is this a consolation for our work?
I think the leap of faith consists in trusting we’re indeed walking a labyrinth, instead of being lost in a maze. That is, we can trust there is a center (a place of hope, a place of peace), no matter how lost we feel. And indeed, every little step forward brings us closer to the center.
This is your consolation?
Yes. To know the path (the path of peace) you’re on is not in vain. What greater consolation could there be? Let’s continue our walk.
Johannes Wich-Schwarz, PEP Board Member and Assistant Professor of English, Maryville University