There is an anecdote associated with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that goes something like this:
During the occupation of France by the Nazis, a young man encounters Sartre along a road and asks him, “Should I join the resistance movement against the Nazis, or tend to my ill mother, who lives alone?” Sartre tells the young man that there is no correct answer, that the dilemma is not resolved by a simple moral formula, but nevertheless he must CHOOSE.
Likewise, when Martin Luther King was facing off with Southern bigots in the 1960s, he must have known that, at any minute, his small children might be made fatherless, and his wife a widow, because of his social activism.
Today, Barack Obama is in the homestretch of a historical run for the direction of this country. The polls suggest that he is ahead right now, but this may end up being a whisker-close election come November 4.
And yet, on learning of the deterioration of the health of his 85 year old grandmother living in Hawaii, and perhaps her immanent death, Barack has CHOSEN to suspend his campaigning for two days to fly out and be with her.
The human dilemma between attending to family v. the community (or God) is a recurrent theme in literature. Here are a few examples:
- In the second part of the Gilgamesh Epic, Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, prays to the god Shamash to protect her son while he is on a journey. She is distraught that he has CHOSEN to hazard his life on an adventure to the Land of Cedars (where he seeks to kill the dragon Humbaba). She wonders why Shamash has put it into Gilgamesh’s heart to leave the comforts of his home and mother, and go so far away.
- In the Baghavad Gita, Arjuna, facing war, is torn between his duty as a soldier and the knowledge that those in the opposing army are his cousins with families that will be destroyed should he succeed in killing them.
- In the Hebrew Bible, Abraham, against every human instinct toward the protection of one’s child, accepts the command of God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
- In the gospels, Jesus famously tells those who follow him to abandon their families and elderly parents (“let the dead bury the dead”). And Jesus was even rather callous to his own mother.
- In Sophocles’s Antigone, Antigone buries her brother against the direct command of King Creon that no one should do so.
- In African American writer Charles Chestnut’s classic short story, The Doll (1912), a black barber, shaving with a sharp blade the neck of the white man who killed his father, is restrained from slitting the man’s throat only through thinking of his daughter, and how she would be fatherless, if he did so.
Obama’s forced choice between his social calling and his family calling is an old one—raising existential and moral dilemmas long explored in literature.