Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Veritatis Visio... Part II

Vision of Others

In his book, Our Old Home, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a chapter called "Outside Glimpses of English Poverty." It contains many powerful passages describing how Hawthorne was shocked by the terrible instances of destitution that he encountered, and how it gave him a profound fresh vision into the plight of man. Rather than summarize, I will quote generously from this book to capture the full power of his story.
What an intimate brotherhood is this in which we dwell, do what we may to put an artificial remoteness between the high creature and the low one! A poor man's breath, borne on the vehicle of tobacco-smoke, floats into a palace-window and reaches the nostrils of a monarch. It is but an example, obvious to the sense, of the innumerable and secret channels by which, at every moment of our lives, the flow and reflux of a common humanity pervade us all. How superficial are the niceties of such as pretend to keep aloof! Let the whole world be cleansed, or not a man or woman of us all can be clean.

By and by we came to the ward where the children were kept, on entering which, we saw, in the first place, several unlovely and unwholesome little people lazily playing together in a courtyard. And here a singular incommodity befell one member of our party. Among the children was a wretched, pale, half-torpid little thing (about six years old, perhaps, but I know not whether a girl or a boy), with a humor in its eyes and face, which the governor said was the scurvy, and which appeared to bedim its powers of vision, so that it toddied about gropingly, as if in quest of it did not precisely know what. This child--this sickly, wretched, humor-eaten infant, the offspring of unspeakable sin and sorrow, whom it must have required several generations of guilty progenitors to render so pitiable an object as we beheld it--immediately took an unaccountable fancy to the gentleman just hinted at. It prowled about him like a pet kitten, rubbing against his legs, following everywhere at his heels, pulling at his coat-tails, and, at last, exerting all the speed that its poor limbs were capable of, got directly before him and held forth its arms, mutely insisting on being taken up. It said not a word, being perhaps under-witted and incapable of prattle. But it smiled up in his face,--a sort of woful gleam was that smile, through the sickly blotches that covered its features,--and found means to express such a perfect confidence that it was going to be fondled and made much of, that there was no possibility in a human heart of balking its expectation. It was as if God had promised the poor child this favor on behalf of that individual, and he was bound to fulfil the contract, or else no longer call himself a man among men. Nevertheless, it could be no easy thing for him to do, he being a person burdened with more than an Englishman's customary reserve, shy of actual contact with human beings, afflicted with a peculiar distaste for whatever was ugly, and, furthermore, accustomed to that habit of observation from an insulated stand-point which is said (but, I hope, erroneously) to have the tendency of putting ice into the blood.

So I watched the struggle in his mind with a good deal of interest, and am seriously of opinion that he did an heroic act, and effected more than he dreamed of towards his final salvation, when he took up the loathsome child and caressed it as tenderly as if he had been its father.
Hawthorne's diaries later revealed that the author himself was the man described here in the third person. Read with this knowledge, the passage becomes much more heart-wrenching, and heart-warming as well. One can see the true vision of others leading to a truer vision of self, as the author observes himself objectively overcoming his own English restraint to show compassion for such a pitiable sight. The vision of human suffering had a profound effect on Hawthorne, and his vivid descriptions reveal a deep understanding of mankind's fallen condition and need for redemption:
It might almost make a man doubt the existence of his own soul, to observe how Nature has flung these little wretches into the street and left them there, so evidently regarding them as nothing worth, and how all mankind acquiesce in the great mother's estimate of her offspring. For, if they are to have no immortality, what superior claim can I assert for mine? And how difficult to believe that anything so precious as a germ of immortal growth can have been buried under this dirt-heap, plunged into this cesspool of misery and vice! As often as I beheld the scene, it affected me with surprise and loathsome interest, much resembling, though in a far intenser degree, the feeling with which, when a boy, I used to turn over a plank or an old log that had long lain on the damp ground, and found a vivacious multitude of unclean and devilish-looking insects scampering to and fro beneath it. Without an infinite faith, there seemed as much prospect of a blessed futurity for those hideous bugs and many-footed worms as for these brethren of our humanity and co-heirs of all our heavenly inheritance. Ah, what a mystery! Slowly, slowly, as after groping at the bottom of a deep, noisome, stagnant pool, my hope struggles upward to the surface, bearing the half-drowned body of a child along with it, and heaving it aloft for its life, and my own life, and all our lives. Unless these slime-clogged nostrils can be made capable of inhaling celestial air, I know not how the purest and most intellectual of us can reasonably expect ever to taste a breath of it. The whole question of eternity is staked there. If a single one of those helpless little ones be lost, the world is lost!
Jesus Christ, who came "the seek and save the lost," might have seen as pitiable an image in Zacheus perched in the tree. Jesus knew what ridicule he would undergo when He called him down. Jesus took pity on him, and offered him eternal life. He offers the same merciful gift to each of us, and asks that we show, in turn, the same compassion and consideration to our fellows. The world provides us no shortage of evidence of depravity and sinfulness, of the terrible effects of the fall, suffering in spirit and in flesh. Yet our perspective matters greatly. What do we see when we encounter such spectacles? Do we see mere lazy people who are only getting their due? Or do we see with eyes like Christ's, with the vision of truth?
And Jesus going out saw a great multitude: and he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd. - Mark 6:34

An online source for Hawthorne's work, Our Old House, can be accessed here.


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