This post comes to us from Jonathan Linebaugh, Lecturer in New Testament at Cambridge University and a fellow of Jesus College: 

“When a human being is made to bear more than a human being can bear, what then?”

I can’t stop asking this question. Neither could its author: Thornton Wilder.

An artist, according to Wilder, is a “beholder” and an asker. As a “beholder,” they “see, feel, and tell” what is. As an asker, as Wilder regularly quoted Chekhov, “it is not the role of the artist to answer the questions but to state them acutely.”

The result of this beholding and asking was a “perpetual harping on the supposition that people suffer.” As the heroine of The Woman of Andros puts it, “Lift every roof and you will find seven puzzled hearts.” 2020 (and, alas, the start of 2021) suggest that Wilder’s “supposition” is perennial: life can feel like “thousands of days, a world of cares,” and “misery and inhumanity never sleep.”

Maybe this is why Wilder’s questions carry the weight of reality. Unlike “topical reformers” who “lift the yoke from one pair of shoulders only to put it on another” because they have “an incomplete conception of human need,” Wilder’s diagnosis “lifts every roof” and sees that all “people suffer.”

Even in the face of this honesty, however, Pandora’s Jar still holds its final gift: hope. As the dying Chrysis eulogizes herself in The Woman of Andros, “I have known the worst that the world can do to me, and … nevertheless I praise the world and all living.” Or see The Skin of Our Teeth: through the horrors of the Ice Age, Flood, and War, human history is finally a record of forgiveness and a promise of a future (hence the play’s visceral and affecting reception in the literal ashes of post-War Germany).

But back come the questions: Where does such hope come from? Is it firm enough to face life as it actually feels to live it — and finally to leave it? Wilder identified this motif in a journal entry after writing his first two novels (The Cabala and The Bridge of San Luis Rey): “one of the principal ideas behind my work is the fear of catastrophe … and a preoccupation with the claims of religions to meet the situation.”

Nearly fifty years later, in a letter about his final novel, Theophilus North, he realized it was about “that old question — what does a man do with his despair (his rage, his frustration)! What does every kind of person ‘store up’ to evade, surmount, transmute, incorporate those aspects of his life which are beyond our power to-alter.”

Between these two, he wrote The Woman of Andros. According to another letter, that novel asks the haunting question: “What is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it? In other words: When a human being is made to bear more than a human being can bear, what then?”

What then?

Wilder refrains from offering answers to this bedrock question. There are some hints, however. In a discarded preface to Theophilus North, he indicates that “throughout a long lifetime” a person acquires “ideas” that are tested and refined by the fires of living. These, finally, are the resources against the ravages of life, the things people “store up” to “evade” or “oppose” the loss of hope which is the doorway to hell (Dante). Wilder’s phrase for these resources is “deposits of radium” — acquired “clusters of energies” that are the springs of hope. As Thornton’s older brother Amos once wrote, “All about us — yesterday, today, tomorrow — there is an unrecognized court in the hearts of men and women which sifts the arts of an age and gives suffrage to whatever provides us with incentives to go on living.”

My questions (and wounds) are still too open to pretend to be able to prescribe “deposits of radium.” But one reviewer of The Woman of Andros dug to the core. That novel’s setting announces an advent: “the land that was soon to be called Holy prepared in the dark its wonderful burden.” As the reviewer sees it, “Mr. Wilder’s fable is concerned with the doubts and difficulties of to-day” and yet “his answer lies two thousand years in the past.” “Is this enough for us?” the critic asks. It is “the one thing needful,” the story seems to say: need and mercy meet, the world is “doubting, troubled, seeking; Christ is born.”

“When a human being is made to bear more than a human being can bear, what then?” I’m not sure Wilder gives an answer, but his story does whisper another: there is one who says to those overwhelmed by a life they cannot bear, “come unto to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

What I’ve found, in the end, is a prayer as this year begins: May that first and final deposit of radium — the diamond thread of divine grace that is the love of God in Christ Jesus — grant us a peace that passes understanding, a comfort deeper than the confusion, and a hope stronger than the hurt.