The problem with parables is presumption. Hearing them, we assume they’re meant for another. For example, we take for granted that we are wisely investing the talents that God has given. We simply assume that we’re like the Good Wife from Proverbs, busy with our worthy labors. But the scriptures want us to ask: Busy about what? What’s supposed to be growing within us? How should our hours be filled?
Julian Barnes’ disquieting new novel, The Sense of an Ending, is about young people, students making choices whose conclusions they could never envision, yet whose consequences they must, in old age, face. Here’s a question posed by the narrator of the novel, Tony Webster. It’s very similar to those raised in the scriptures:
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course, it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities: but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also—if this isn’t too grand a word—our tragedy.
Does character develop in time? Is that what it means to invest our talents, to be an industrious servant of the kingdom? When we speak of growing in grace and wisdom, don’t we mean that we dig into the depth of our own humanity, that we cultivate character and foster the same in those whom God has given to us? Or, as Aristotle taught in his Nicomachean Ethics, “human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.”
So what is the tragedy of which Tony Webster writes, the sorrow that Julian Barnes’ novel explores? He calls it “the question of accumulation” and here is how he explains it:
You put money on a horse, it wins, and your winnings go on to the next horse in the next race, and so on. Your winnings accumulate. But do your losses? Not at the racetrack—there you just lose your original stake. But in life? Perhaps here different rules apply. You bet on a relationship, it fails; you go on to the next relationship, it fails too: and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums but the multiple of what you staked. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also the accumulation, the multiplication of loss, of failure.
There’s the truly frightening aspect of “character investment.” Wherever we place our talents, however we expend our energies, in the very act of choice, we ineluctably foreclose other options. It’s in the very nature of paths to diverge. We make a single choice—say, whether or not to attend college. That lone decision determines whole fields of future options. To marry this person is not to wed an unlimited number of others. Saying no to an unborn child negates an entire world; executing a convict closes every possibility of future reform or repentance. This the core of the pro-life argument: that the unlimited potential of any human life demands reverence in principle and reticence in choice.
When we fail to grow—and that’s another way to speak of sin—we don’t simply fall at this moment, we cleave away whole branches of growth, and the new life that would spring from any one of them.
Of course, this sort of musing can paralyze, and stasis is no solution. The Gospel is quite clear. We can’t bury talents. Not to choose is to choose. Then, what is to be done?
St. Paul reminds us that we are “children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” (1 Thes 5: 5-6). What does it mean to stay alert and sober? It means turning away from that which enervates and dissipates. It means opting for that which promotes growth in character. In short, however clouded, complex and cuneiform the choices before you, always—as God gives you the grace to see—choose life.
Terrance W. Klein