What follows is partially prompted by a discussion over at the Hermits’ place and partly simply my own muddled musings.
Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, â€™twixt that darkness and that light.
I was told not too long ago that this hymn was removed from The Hymnal 1982 not because it refers to “man” (not humans, or souls, or men and women, or what have you) but because of a theological issue: there is no one time in our lives that we must choose between good and evil–we are called to do so constantly.
Of course, I think Lowell’s lyrics acknowledge that: the choice goes by forever, after all. I am not a theologian or an expert on hymns, or much of anything else.
The hymn comes to me at the moment partly because it is a great favorite of mine–we sang it at my camp long ago, and it shows up in The House with a Clock in its Walls, and Martin Luther King Jr. quotes it several times in his speeches and sermons. It comes to me also, though, I think, because I’ve been thinking lately about moments that occur once and moments that occur again and again.
The incidents at Virginia Tech remind most people of the shootings at Columbine High School, which took place eight years ago today. They remind many also, I suspect, of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which took place twelve years ago this week. For those of us with a connection to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, the thing that comes most to mind is, I suspect, the physics department shootings in 1991, which, bucking the April trend, took place in November, on All Saints Day. Some may recall the many other school shootings in this country–Red Lake, Minnesota; West Paducah, Kentucky; and on, and on–killings that get less ongoing attention but that were no less devastating for their communities. And any act of sudden violence cannot help but bring to mind the attacks of 9/11. One doesn’t equate these things–one can’t–but they come to mind, and one realizes that evil does not happen simply once.
One also realizes–or some, at least, also realize–that we tend to pay more attention to the tragedies that are sudden as opposed to those that are ongoing. We lose sight of the ongoing killings abroad in favor of the one-off sensations. We barely even register the things that kill more slowly: poverty, homelessness, hunger, addiction, oppression.
It is remarkably easy to write off other people’s suffering. It is equally easy to judge the mourning of others, to believe that the woman who does not cry at her mother’s funeral or the man who does not seem affected by the school shooting that happened in his town are in some way not fully human or humane.
I do not believe that the choice between truth and falsehood is one we make only once, but I do believe that there is for each person one great tragedy–one thing that happens that defines your understanding of sadness. That thing may have already happened to you, or it may yet be coming to you (but make no mistake: it will come). It is one of the great comforts of my life, actually: as a friend once said, the great wheel of tragedy leaves no one untouched. Eventually it swings around to everyone. I try to remember that in a charitable way when someone says something appalling to me, but mostly, I must admit, I remember it in a more gleeful fashion. Oh, just you wait, I think. It’ll happen to you, too.
I started this post a day or two ago but didn’t finish it, and now I’ve forgotten where it was meant to go–if, in fact, it was meant to go anywhere–I call this ramblings for a reason. Suffice it to say that I am always struck, at moments of great national or international tragedy, by how randomly tragedy strikes us, and how peculiar and personal our reactions to it, or our lack of reaction, must always be.