An old friend died. It wasn’t a surprise. He had fallen into drugs, a decade ago, and never came back. Lost everything—career, home, wife, kids. Overdosed repeatedly, and intentionally, and was revived. But it was only a matter of time until—this time.
And yet, I was surprised. Not because I had been thinking he was getting better. No: because I hadn’t been thinking about him at all. When he first flamed out, I tried to help. Met him for coffees, had long frank talks. But then he just crashed even farther. It was terrifying and appalling. I was afraid he might try to get to his estranged family through me. So I pulled back. Stopped reaching out to him. I put him out of my mind.
Was that terrible?
I think about a moment in the Book of Job—the Old Testament’s great parable of morality and suffering. By God’s whim, the title character loses everything: wealth, wife, children, health. He is left sitting in filth, covered in boils, and scraping himself with a piece of a broken pot. Job has always been a good, pious man. He doesn’t deserve this.
Which is the point. In the preceding books of the Old Testament, you see—the History books of the Jewish people, from Genesis to Esther—there is no such thing as not deserving it. Suffering comes from displeasing God. Displeasing God causes, and justifies, suffering. That is the crock that the Book of Job throws, very purposefully, against the wall.
In his agony, Job is visited by three neighbours, ironically known as the Comforters. They speak loudly and at length for the old morality. Job must have merited the awful fortune he has received! Otherwise, God would appear to be unjust—and that is just unthinkable. For the most part, the Comforters don’t come off very well. (At the end of the book, God appears in a whirlwind, and reprimands them.) They are refusing to hear the unbearable sermon that the text is trying to be.
But one of them—his name is Eliphaz the Temanite—at one point comes up with an amazingly powerful accusation. “Is not thy wickedness great?” he demands of Job. “And thine iniquities infinite?”
“For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for nought, and stripped the naked of their clothing. / Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry. … / Thou hast sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken.” (Job 22: 5-9)
Job might well answer (and more or less does, in the following chapter): I have not done any of those things! I have not been that kind of person!
But he has. We all have. If we think about it.
We have taken, without properly recompensing, the love of a sibling or friend. We have failed to seek out the homeless and starving—though we know exactly where they are—to offer them food and shelter. We have not bothered to make sure that lonely old ladies, all of them, have days and hearts full of joy. We have left the orphan children of the world’s teeming slums exposed to horrible violence.
And so on.
Not sins of commission. Sins of omission. But what difference does it make? Infinite suffering starts at our door, and spreads to the horizon. What are we doing about it? Basically, and almost all of the time, nothing. We put it out of our minds.
Isn’t that terrible?
A conundrum emerges here, at the very centre of ethics. We can’t save the world, so we mostly ignore it. We just focus on our own little corners: our families, callings, and lives. There, to be sure, we may act morally. But every time we do—and precisely because we do—we shine a light on the dark universe of mess that we are not even trying to clean up. Our own claim of goodness convicts us. So says Eliphaz.
It therefore becomes possible to ask: what’s the point?
“If I be wicked,” Job cries out, “why then labour I in vain? / If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; / Yet shalt thou plunge me in the ditch” (9: 29-31). His “thou” is God, but it could just as well be Morality Itself. It makes demands on us that we cannot possibly fulfill.
And yet here—just here—the hole we are digging starts to turn into a tunnel.
We’ve reached a point, with Job, where it seems like morality is impossible for us. But that doesn’t make any sense. After all, morality is for us. The finite, imperfect, organic beings that we are. A being who could instantly avoid all sins of omission—end all wars, cure all cancers, prevent all devastating drug addictions—wouldn’t even need or recognize our morality. Which is why He, it, or whatever pronoun you put, doesn’t do that.
Eliphaz tells us that our own, limited moral actions convict us of failing to undertake all, unlimited moral actions. Our goodness illuminates the infinite necessity of the good.
But we can say: exactly! Our goodness does that—nothing else! Our working, our cleaning, our caring, our loving. Yes, in our own tiny corners of the world. Without us—without the good that we actually do, in the lives that we actually have—there wouldn’t be any morality at all. And if we didn’t focus on our own lives—our selves, our families, our communities—no good at all would ever get done. There wouldn’t even be any good that could be done.
In our lives, and only there, morality is. In our corners, and only there, the good lives.
And yes: the reality of our being necessitates drawing a line between the good we can do, and the good that we can’t. Indeed, we must refuse—and this itself is difficult moral action—to let the one be abused by the other.
My old friend who died was one of the sweetest, gentlest people I have ever known. He couldn’t bear any kind of harshness or cruelty. He had had a very difficult early life, and that weighed heavily on him.
Somebody, in their little corner of the world, didn’t do the good, for him, that morality demanded.
That was terrible.