I was present this weekend at a panel of civil rights leaders, in which one asserted that you shouldn’t get involved in taking on the struggle for anyone’s greater humanity unless you’ve been converted to it, gone through an experience of conversion, much like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s transformative trigger experience at the kitchen table, that suffuses you so deeply with love for those whose lives you truly share, that you can’t do otherwise, that you would do this work and fight this fight even if no living soul were ever made aware you were even interested in it. Unless that’s the case, this pastor went on, you’re just another person who inserts him/herself into the life of a community that’s not yours, thinking you’re doing them some good courtesy of the benefit of your greater and ultimately paternalistic knowledge– a not-always gentle form of derision whose commitment will peter out once the next self-congratulatory opportunity presents itself.
The assertion connected itself to a completely different scenario, world, and time today as I got started on Kafka: The Decisive Years (Reiner Stach).* Yes, I was aware of the fact that the enigmatic master was a big shot in an insurance firm, that he struggled through an office job no more bleak or maddening than any I’ve ever had, and that he still felt such overwhelming dedication to writing, period, that he somehow made himself attend to the latter, lest he lose his sanity. He even declared as much in a note left for his employer one day, when he admitted to being unable to face the idiocy of his workplace, because in comparison, it paled in importance next to his true vocation– and his boss could go ahead and fire him if he would, but this budding author was taking the day off, thank you very much.
Can a person find that point that focuses all dedication, come what may, on this One True Thing, whatever it may be? Can anyone go in search of that core element that makes a life meaningful, hunt it down and let it take over– or are only the lucky ones, if sacrifice to an overriding passion can be considered lucky, allowed the privilege of such commitment being instilled within them? In the communities of ease that make up my world, aimlessness and effortless access to the basics and beyond seem to have driven away the need or the desire for some iron claw of guidance to seize hold of one’s soul and push the initiate to hollow out a place in the world marked, if not by their presence, then the work that resulted from that overflowing fire. Maybe hungering for this form of ardor is one more piece of evidence that I don’t quite fit in– but even if that’s so, I wish someone could tell me how to find it.
* Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years, transl. Shelley Frisch (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 2005.