Numerous parts of President Obama’s speech at Newtown on Sunday pricked me, but the following was especially jarring:
Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? […]
There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.
The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger, we know that’s what matters.
We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.
That’s the right answer to Pilate’s question.
I also thought of Albert Camus on Sunday. How might he have responded to the absurdity and obscenity of what happened at Sandy Hook?
Here’s Camus from his “Myth of Sisyphus”:
I derive from the absurd three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the sheer activity of consciousness, I transform in a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.
Camus here suggests that an honest encounter with the universe’s absurdity—the mass suffering and death in it—can lead, paradoxically, to a vital life. It is an outraged person’s refusal of the absurd that leads to an affirmation of rebellion, freedom, and passion.
Put another way: after passing through nihilism and the dark night of the soul, there is still the possibility for making a meaningful life through solidarity with others. Our collective outrage at human calamity, and the universe’s indifference to it, leads us to value one another (since nobody else—and nothing else—will value us).
The value of human life thus comes, in part, from the empathy we feel for others in extremity (think of Camus’ The Plague here). That’s part of the rebellion of human consciousness against an obviously God-forsaken cosmos. (Or should one say chaos?) Just because God has forsaken human beings, it doesn’t follow that we need to forsake each other as well. We can be brothers and sisters to one another. We can do better than God, our absent Father (who is asleep, apparently, in heaven).
As Camus wrote in “L’homme révolté”:
The solidarity of humanity is based on the revolt, and the justification of the revolt is man’s solidarity with others.
No one else—and nothing else—justifies our caring for one another—or needs to justify it. And nowhere is our caring better directed than toward defending innocents. They are the promise of the world. The six and seven-year olds that died at Sandy Hook were born in 2006 and 2007. That means they would have reached their 30s and 40s in the 2030s and 2040s–which means they would have been center stage in those decades, the hard-working Atlases upholding and enlarging human civilization. We needed them.
As President Obama said:
This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.
After Sandy Hook, what is truth? That is truth.