Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College



Stages on life's way

In our discussions surrounding the Hebrew wisdom literature, I will argue that we can see four discernible stages along life's way, and that each of these four stages can be represented by one of the three books we are reading in this tradition.

I. The stage of innocence

This is the stage in which most of us grow up. As long as we are in this stage we believe that the world is a just and orderly place and that people do mostly get to enjoy (or suffer) the just consequences of their actions. Good behaviors lead to good consequences and bad behaviors lead to bad consequences.

This stage is well represented by the Book of Proverbs. The long exhortation to wisdom in the first several chapters of the book expresses this stage well. It can be summarized in the following three propositions:

  1. If you live wisely and follow God's laws, you will prosper and be happy, and your life will go well for you.
  2. If on the other hand you live foolishly and disobey God's laws, you will probably suffer, you will be unhappy, and your life will go badly for you.
  3. Therefore, it would seem to follow that if you are suffering and unhappy and your life is going badly, it is probably because you have done something foolish and/or have disobeyed God's laws.

This is properly the stage of children and young people who are still growing up and who are still learning how they should best behave in the world. This stage will be represented by the Book of Proverbs, and by the exhortations from loving parents to their children about whom they care so deeply. (This is not to say that The Book of Proverbs is no longer meaningful after young adulthood; it is instead suggesting that the simpler worldview represented by Proverbs can - after one has been touched by such suffering - no longer suffice as an a complete and adequate picture of the world.)

At some point in a young adult life, however, (if not sooner) something often happens that forces one out of the stage of innocence.

II. The stage of outrage

When we see someone we know well and love deeply undergoing a terrible and unjust suffering, one of the things we often feel is outrage. (And some people experience the outrage when the unjustified suffering has happened directly to them, as Job did.) When we see such a terrible injustice happening to a person about whom we care so deeply and whom we know to be a good person, we are often outraged that such a thing could happen in this world.

This stage is best represented by the Book of Job, the story of a perfectly just man having the most terrible tragedies visited on him. As you read the story of Job you will perhaps appreciate his anger and outrage and the tragic injustice of what is happening to him.

In the stage of outrage (what William Blake termed the Age of Experience) one discovers that the world is not so perfectly just and orderly after all, at least not in the way they had previously thought. This stage emerges when one discovers that terrible and unjust tragedies which should never happen do actually happen in our world, that they are wrong, and that - if one had any control over the world - would never be allowed to happen again.

This stage often leads a person to question their previous beliefs about the justice, order, and goodness of the universe, and may even lead them to question whether the foundational groundings of the universe are ultimately just and good.

III. The stage of despair

The stage of despair can set in when one comes to believe (sometimes as a result of long tragic experience) that there is no order in the world.

If the stage of outrage led one to realize that unjust tragedies do sometimes happen in the world, the stage of despair leads one to believe that there is absolutely no order or justice in the world and that things seem to have no ultimate point or meaning at all. "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity," say the first lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes, the book we will use to represent this stage on life's way.

Leo Tolstoy, when this feeling first came on him in the middle of his life, expressed it thus:

"Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?" "Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?" (A Confession, part V)

For a time in the middle of his life, Tolstoy's answer to this question was "No, none that I can see."

Pointless as he saw life to be, however, he also (like the author of Ecclesiastes) believed that life does offer some few small pleasures here and there for our short-term temporary enjoyment. Tolstoy, like the author of Ecclesiastes, believed that we might as well enjoy those small pleasures even though the entirety of life appears to be meaningless and in vain. He is reminded of a story that makes this same point.

There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveler overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes a twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveler sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. (A Confession, part IV)

This thinking, as you might imagine, often leads to a kind of hedonism (maybe look up this word in one of the dictionaries) lived out in the midst of a life that is felt to be ultimately empty and pointless.

This kind of despair (from the Latin de = without, and spes = hope) often leads to what Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage To Be, refers to as "non-creative existential cynicism." (Click here to see some short reviews of this powerful book by contemporary readers.)

IV. The stage of hope

Can hope ever come out of such despair? Victor Frankl faced this question during his time in the concentration camps in World War II in Germany. He describes these "experiences in a concentration camp" in his book Man's Search for Meaning, one of the most powerful and important little books to ever come out of one person's encounter with despair. (Click here for a recent interview with Victor Frankl)

Much of the rest of the Hebrew scriptures -- as well as the Christian and Islamic scriptures that follow them -- address the question of what hope means in a world that can sometimes drive a person to despair.

And in The Inferno, part one of Dante's three part Divine Comedy, true hope -- in the form of progress toward paradise -- comes only from facing despair directly and moving through it rather than by trying to run away from it. Dante himself is able to get out of the pit of hell only by exiting through its deepest parts.

Some of the other books we will read this quarter will also address the question of what hope means and in what direction the paths toward it might lie.