Quodlibets: A Thing Called Man

If you lean out of skyscraper window holding a bag of fertilizer in one hand and a poet in the other and let go of both they will fall. Tennyson and a sack of 10-10-10 are equally values of the variable in the law of falling bodies. Man is a thing. But a thing who knows he is not just a thing.

The House of Usher did not fall like a rock. The plummeting poet may be heard to murmur, Break, break, break on the cold grey stones, but there is no inner anguish in the bag of gravelly grass greener.

Nothing reduces us to the status of thing more surely than travel. Docile passengers troop in and out of planes, are lectured, commanded, inspected, sorted into smokers and not. Their planes leave late, their luggage does not arrive, flights are canceled, and they spend unscheduled nights in St. Louis. Anger surges in the soul but it is difficult to know on whom to direct it.

Such things did not begin with air travel. Many can remember waking in a motionless train that had been shunted onto a siding to wait for another to whoosh by in the night. No announcement was made. Once in the Rockies a bus I was on had a flat and we sat for hours waiting to be rescued.

The men who would be president must feel reduced to things when they participate in what are debatably debates, but I will bet that it is the travel required that makes them feel like a sack of fertilizer of equal weight.

Pascal called man a thinking reed. He is also a thing that resents being treated like a thing. Thinking is of course the key, our awareness of our helplessness in such situations. But a little thought suggests that far from being anomalous, those times when we realize we are not in control of our destiny are merely exaggerations of the human condition.

Farmers pray for rain and fisherman for fish, young couples for a child and millions for a win at Lotto. Our life is composed both of what we make happen and of what happens to us.

The other day on an airport bus I sat next to an elderly man who was reading a book on successful management. Success, it seems, depends not simply on being tolerant of change; one must be eager for change. My fleeting thought that the topic was coin collecting faded. I wondered if there are books which tell us how to welcome being treated like a thing.

And of course there are.

What we make of what happens to us makes us what we are. Someone has read all the pop psychology that is published, and books on self-improvement, but seeing a flesh and blood person poring over one is a little like running into someone who takes Dr. Ruth seriously.

There is a hunger in us all that cannot be assuaged by the surrogate of success. Chesterton says somewhere that the young man knocking on the brothel door is looking for God. So too the man in his seventies reading that he should eagerly welcome change.

I suppose Dr. Ruth’s audience is looking for God too. Lichtenburg said that the Gospels are like mirrors. If a monkey looks in, no apostle looks out.

Still, any reflection is a start. Like recognizing that not even an airline can turn you into a thing.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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