Crossing the Threshold of Hope: Why Smiling is Great
“Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good”
-St. John Paul II
It’s very hard to come to grips with evil in the world. What are we to do when we’re surrounded by it? Today’s age of social media only exacerbates things – we see it everywhere. Mass shootings, people dying in the Middle East, the slaughter of the unborn and murder of the old and infirmed. And those who were supposed to be our heroes sicken us as we see all too often their humanity, and our society falters.
What are we to do, then, with the problem of evil? I don’t shy away that countless others more qualified than me have attempted to answer this question. Once again, I merely present some thoughts, some ideas, as a reminder for both you and me. As a child, we might have perhaps thought the world was perfect, immaculate. Then came that moment when it all changed. However early or late in life, something caused that vision to change.
And then we grew up. We wondered what had happened – we were supposed to conquer the world, after all. Things were going to be perfect – we would want for nothing and those around us would be perfectly happy. I’m currently working my way through Angela’s Ashes, a wonderful memoir of a boy whose parents bring him back to Ireland in the early 20th century. His parents have this vision of what life will be like in Ireland, but it ends up simply being not the case. In fact, it ends up being much worse than America.
We also seem to have this rather utopian, and slightly hopeful vision of what life will be like. Some of us think (mistakenly) that’s it’s going to be absolutely perfect. Yes, it might be slightly utopian, perhaps a little naive. But I say it’s something else, that it’s a dare, a draw, for something more. We instinctively know that we were made for more, and that something in us beckons. There’s something in us that says things aren’t perfect, but they could be; that place is out there, somewhere.
But it’s hard when we continually see things around us as being far from perfect. Let’s be real here. Moreover, our constant social media feed only exasperates this by pointing out the mud and muck around us. The worst news often becomes the best news, the most sensational. Did you hear what so and so did? Did you see that video of this awful thing?
I recently attended a talk by the professor Patrick Deneen. In his talk, Deneen outlined a message we hear all too often today; our social order is rotten and corrupting all around us, and things are not what they used to be. Highlighting a culture that is evermore “free”, Deneen reflected how this pursuit of a liberal order becomes the end of a society. This has been disastrous for our country as institutions like the family and the Church are being slowly encroached upon by the State; and it is the State which will become a god, bestowing goodness and mercy whomsoever it chooses. Deneen, like many others before him, pointed to how Christians are being pushed more and more to the edges of society. In short, it perhaps might be time to call it quits.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
The thing to remember is that there’s something beyond this; I don’t propose this as a form of escapism – on the contrary! Merely as hope. That while parts of this world may seem nasty and brutish, there are parts that are not. I point to an article here by David Brooks at the New York Times. It’s about a little town in Cometa, Italy where a lot of little souls are being shown a lot of love. In the town of Cometa, two brothers, Erasmo and Innocente Figini, along with their wives and several other couples look after hundreds of children. These children, mind you, all have either no homes, or come from broken families. It’s not easy. Brooks writes:
“Imagine looking after hundreds of children across 30 years, 24/7. By dinnertime, the adults around the table look exhausted. There are children seeking attention every second. Their daily lives are tied down to this place, even while some of the adults also work full-time jobs in the world outside. The sacrifices are real.”
But it’s all worth it – it’s an encounter with beauty, stirred by Erasmo Figini’s encounter with Father Luigi Giussani, whose encounter of faith becomes, as Brooks puts it “an encounter with beauty, a love story”. My brother Patrick has written a little bit on Giussani before here. The then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) reflected at Giussani’s funeral that he, Giussani was “wounded by the desire for beauty”. And in our encounter with beauty, our heart becomes pierced with a shaft of light, so deep, so sure, that we are unable to defend ourselves against it. The only thing we can do is make sure others share in this beauty. So I reflect on the quote earlier from Tolkien – above all this, there is much more! That’s the hope of the Christians; we’re merely (to borrow from Archbishop Chaput) strangers in a strange land who are on a rather long and unexpected journey. We’re never fully at home, and this world is not meant to be fully perfect now.
John Paul II, in an interview known as Crossing the Threshold of Hope, commented the following:
“The Gospel, above all else, is the joy of creation. God, who in creating saw that His creation was good, is the source of joy for all creatures, and above all for humankind. God the Creator seems to say of all creation: “It is good that you exist.’ And His joy spreads especially through the ‘good news’, according to which good is greater than all that is evil in the world…Creation was given and entrusted to humankind as a duty, representing not a source of suffering but the foundation of a creative existence in the world…there is a great challenge to perfect creation – be it oneself, be it the world.”
I’ve proclaimed this theme quite often over the past few articles. This is not an accident. I want to urge you, dear reader, that while this world may seem cold and hard (which it can be), that you are capable of more. The joy of life is to be found today, here, now! It’s to be found as we engage in the world around us, in perfecting and working amid the work of creation, no matter how dark and stormy it may become. If we are truly encountering the Gospel, the good news, we want to do something with it. But what exactly can you and I do?
We do better. I don’t mean this as some trite way out of answering the question. I mean just that. We do better. Are you in the middle of school? Put more effort into that class you hate, maybe help out a fellow student who’s struggling. Try to actually prepare that presentation instead of cobbling something together the night before (something which I am guilty of!).
Are you a professional working in the world? Then do your work well, without cutting cornerstones. Learn the best practices for your industry, how to do things even better. Work patiently and cheerfully with those around you. Know the name of your janitor.
It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old – these are all things we can do, no matter where we are. Do you look that homeless man or woman in the eye and smile? Do you take some time for silence? Can you see what I’m pointing to now? It is that anyone and everyone can do better. And it starts with small things right where you are. The joy of spreading the Gospel starts by doing the small things better. If we want to overcome the constant nastiness we encounter daily, it’s by bringing something better to the table. Overcoming evil starts by creating small pockets of joy that build daily.
It’s up to you to know what is good for your sphere, for your little garden that you can cultivate. All I want you to do is to think about how to do that one, very small thing, better.
It might even start with a simple smile to those around you. You can do that, right?
So. If there is something we should be doing, you and I, it is exactly what I’ve laid out above, what I (and my brother) have been laying out over the past year. Look ahead to tomorrow and ask yourself tonight: what is one thing I could do better? And for this week, just do that one thing.
And don’t be discouraged by the evil in this world. Don’t let it conquer you, smother you.
Be not afraid!