A strong sense of purpose is often pointed to as the premise for a life that matters. Today I stood in the rain with students calling for justice. I felt purpose as I prayed with them during this divisive time in American history. But unlike the passion put on display by the young people that surrounded me, my passion seems to wane with the tides of life and responsibilities. At times I struggle with finding purpose, feeling as if I am imprisoned in a body increasingly too old for relevance and simultaneously too young for inaction. For those in prison, a sense of purpose is often difficult to discern.
In his classic short story Old Man, William Faulkner writes of a convict who finds purpose and then loses it again. The convict, sent to rescue a woman in a tree at the height of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, finds his skiff overtaken by the flood’s current. This prisoner remains jailed in anonymity by Faulkner, perhaps to illustrate how those in this circumstance are not known by their name but simply by an assigned arbitrary number. Doesn’t it feel as if so many of us have been reduced to numbers? Analyitcs govern our world. We are a part of a demographic, aggregate, subgroups and political parties that reduce us to unthinking, unfeeling, subalterns designed to carry out the marching orders of the latest consumer obsessions. Deconstructing the purpose of community and redefining it as a mere representation of a larger whole, sometimes the zeitgeist clouds our perspectives of hope. But the river rages forward.
Faulkner describes the convict’s disposition toward the harrowing circumstance of being swept along by the river without banks, “It merely seemed to him that he had accidentally been caught in a situation in which time and environment, not himself, was mesmerized; he was being toyed with by a current of water going nowhere, beneath a day which would wane toward no evening; when it was done with him it would spew him back into the comparatively safe world he had been snatched violently out of and in the meantime it did not much matter just what he did or did not do.”
This perfectly describes the life of a prisoner, in this case the unnamed tall, lean, sunburned convict. And more specifically, it does at times appropriately describe my own sense of drifting in the tumultuous waters of these challenging days. Yet as I marched with people and participated in the chant “Black Lives Matter!” I also had a sense that this raging river of cultural revolution was bigger than all of us, and maybe I shouldn’t spend so much time contemplating my own existential concerns, especially considering all of the privilege my white skin has given me. And the river rages on.
According to Faulkner, the convict carried “a sense of burning and impotent outrage” that could be seen in his eyes. Again, this phrase is telling of the condition of prisoner. There can be nothing worse than a burning outrage whose outlet or expression is without power. Once again, as I marched today in support of justice for those like Breonna Taylor and Elijah Mcclain, I contemplated the plight of Faulkner’s convict. Like the convict, those who protest in the streets of our cities, feel the “burning and impotent outrage.” This is a phrase that is consistently repeated in describing the convict. The fate of Faulkner’s convict is confined to the circumstances that imprison him. Circumstances have a way of imprisoning us all, but most acutely those who find themselves born into systemic circumstances that if gone unchallenged, impose a life sentence. Burning and impotent outrage indeed.
In powerful and colorful language, Faulkner consistently uses this theme to describe the convict’s life on the “farm” as a place where “the convicts work under the rifles and shotguns of guards and trusties and muse with a kind of enraged impotence, fumbling among the rubbish left him by his one and only experience with the courts and law, fumbling until the meaningless and verbose shibboleth took form at last…” Faulkner is alluding to a story from the biblical book of Judges where people were required to repeat a certain phrase or “shibboleth” in order to be identified as friends and not enemies. Perhaps Faulkner is suggesting that in order for the convicts to conform to the realities of prison life that they must learn to submit to an uncertain fate, albeit routine, in order to navigate the unpredictability of that existence. And by doing so give up on purpose. Perhaps this why the convict feels the way he does when taken by the current. It is an all too familiar feeling. At the end of the story the convict has ten years added to his sentence. And with it the sense of purposelessness returns.
In some respects, I’m attempting to properly pronounce my own “shibboleths” in an uncertain time. But of this I am certain, the strength of the current is increasing in its velocity. May every injustice be swept out of existence, and in so doing perhaps also displace me to a more sustainable vitality.
The river rages on.