In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. --Albert Camus. Actuelles [January 6, 1960]
So wrote Albert Camus, best known for his short novel, The Stranger, with its vivid depiction of alienation and the absurd. No one familiar with his work would ever accuse Camus of being a Polyanna.
My initial reaction upon reading Camus was depression and despair. Decades later I can still remember how I felt while reading them. He, like other intellectuals after the 2nd World War, was thoroughly disillusioned with any and all romantic notions of humanity. In his novels, plays, and essays, he focused on the absurd, the alienated, and death. His most famous essay is titled "The Myth of Sisyphus." the story of Sisyphus, you may recall, is the legend of the God whose fate it is to, through all eternity, push with all his might a large boulder up a hill only to see it roll down the other side whenever he finally makes it to the top. Such was Camus' vision of the human condition.
But Camus didn't stop with despair. Although he faced the problems of evil, estrangement, and disillusionment he, nonetheless, passionately defended the values of truth, justice, and the possibility of community. He believed that even though we may be, like Sisyphus, fated to never succeed, we can still find rich redemption in dignity and community.
I still remember, decades later, how hopeless I felt after reading Camus and other postwar existentialists. But I don't need to read Camus to feel hopeless. It's easy to feel hopeless about the human condition. Famine, pestilence, and war seem to afflict us on every side. It's easy to feel like a stranger in a strange land. It's easy to feel that life is absurd. It's easy to feel that life is but a cosmic joke.
Camus and other postwar intellectuals provided a needed note of realism to sentimental romantic notions of human perfectibility and progress. One of the weaknesses of religious liberals is that we tend to underestimate the reality of evil. Sometimes we seem to believe that if we could only solve the problems of poverty and ignorance that we could approximate heaven on earth. But, even if we could solve these admittedly pressing problems and more, we would still have the problem of evil.
Our greatest blessing as human beings, our capacity for self-awareness, reflection, and imagination, seems to be a double edged sword. This capacity, which impels us to love and nurture also impels us to hate and destroy. It seems we can't have one without the other.
Some, faced with this tragic dilemma, would give up, saying, in effect, "What's the use?"
But we can't stop there. There's more to the human story than that. As Bob Dylan wrote in All Along the Watchtower,
No reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke, There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke But you and I've we been through that and this is not our fate Let us not talk falsely now. the hour is getting late.
Let us not talk falsely now. Let us not pretend that all is well. It is not. But that's not the whole story. To give up would be to betray our promise. Let us be true to ourselves and our potential. Let us be true to our promise.
Life is absurd and life is meaningful. Evil is real and so, too, is goodness. We are strangers in a strange land and we are capable of giving and receiving love.
We may despair of ever fulfilling our promise. We may feel like Sisyphus as we labor for the end of war, the end of hate, the end of poverty, the end of disease. Like the pushing of the stone, these are tasks that will never end. But does that mean they are meaningless?
In the face of war we yearn for peace. In the face of face of hate we hope for love. In the face of disease we hope for health. In this time of long nights and killing frost, we yearn for light and warmth.
Winter always, always comes, but so does Summer.
Hold fast to dreams. For if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly - Langston Hughes
It is our dream that we can affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is our dream that we can accomplish justice with mercy. It is our dream that we can live in harmony with the web of life. It is our dream that we resolve our differences without violence. We dream of Peace on Earth and goodwill to all.
The Hindu mystic Ramakrishna wrote that "The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail."
The name of the sail is hope. Let us raise high our sail of hope even in the midst of winter. Let us set out to discover the invincible summer within us all.
So in this time of long nights and killing frost, this time of war and poverty and pestilence, may we find blessing in the coming holidays and holy days. Let magic come with its precious gifts of wonder and awe, trees that are always green, a guiding star, and a light that always burns.
Let us find in the dark corners of our souls the light of hope, A vision of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Let us find rest in the quiet of a holy moment Let us find the child in each of us, the new hope, the new light, born in us.
Then will the holidays come. Then will magic return to the world.
In the Midst of Winter...