In The Power and The Glory, Graham Greene tells the story of a “whisky priest” who tries to keep his ministry alive during the Cristero War in Mexico. After the revolution of 1917, the Mexican government, seeking to suppress the power of the Catholic Church, seized church property, desecrated churches, and forced priests to renounce their vows and even to marry.
In 1926, some 50,000 peasants – many from the state of Tabasco – revolted against the government. They became known as Cristeros because their rallying cry was Viva Cristo Rey! During the war, which lasted until 1929, no Catholic mass was given in Mexico and many priests and nuns were summarily executed.
Against this backdrop, Greene tells a morally ambiguous tale. The whisky priest is no paragon of virtue. The lieutenant who doggedly pursues him is idealistic but violent. The lieutenant hates the church, believing it to be thoroughly corrupt. Does the priest hate the lieutenant? It’s an interesting question that allows Greene to write a brief meditation on the nature of hatred:
When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace picked up the same thread in his commencement speech at Kenyon College. Wallace spoke of banal platitudes and the dreary rhythms of daily life. Life, he suggested, is often frustrating, infuriating, irritating, and just plain stupid. We’re surrounded by stupid, cowlike people and deal with petty, frustrating crap, day in and day out.
After painting a dismal picture of daily adult life, Wallace reminds us that that’s not the point. The point is that we get to choose. We can choose how to think and what to pay attention to. Our natural default setting is egotism. It’s all about me. Why are these people in my way?
Or we can imagine. We might imagine that the checkout clerk has a more tedious and painful life than even we do. Or that she’s just done something wonderfully generous and kind for another person. We can imagine that the person driving slowly ahead of us is tired from caring for a sick child. If we can see “the lines at the corners of the eyes”, then we can’t hate. It’s our choice.
I doubt that Greene and Wallace are compared very often in literature classes. But they’re mining exactly the same vein. We need to learn how to think and how to imagine. We don’t have to imagine new products or great art. We simply have to imagine how it is to be another person.
Another great novelist, Saul Bellow, wrote that imagination is “eternal naïveté”. We need to be naïve to imagine what another’s life is like. If we can be eternally naïve, we can stop being angry — at other people and at ourselves. Perhaps we can even be happy. It’s our choice.
(You can find a video of a portion of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech by clicking here).