Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In Excess of Survival

There once was a man named Job. He was a good man and over the years, accumulated everything that mattered to him as well as to most of us -- family, financial security, health -- until one day the roof caved in and through no fault of his own, he lost it all. His friends commiserated with him, saying "Life has dealt more harshly with you than one should have to bear -- curse God and die." I don't know whether they wearied of witnessing his spectacle or of hearing his lament, but it's easy to talk about death when it's not at your doorstep. Job refuses and asserts he will continue to trust, no matter what.

I'm thinking about Job this morning because I've finished The Road and I think I know why the father refuses to give up on living and why he insists on the same from his son. It's because you never know what may be coming next. "We have to keep going," he says, on almost every page. He's not a merciless taskmaster, they rest when they can, often when the son wishes. But he's a determined one and he reminds himself it's because his son will die without him. And that is true.

There are times when the father wishes he was already dead because there is neither rhyme nor reason to go on except that this is what they must do. It's wet and they need to camp; they're hungry and have to find food; they're in danger and he must protect his son. It doesn't make sense and when they nearly despair of going further, they discover an oasis that almost seems as though it was left, just for them, by an unseen and unknown traveler who knew they'd come this way.

Life does that to us. Leaves provision when none is expected and where many fail to look. We believe we're starving and perhaps we are, but one does not always live by bread alone. McCarthy tells us it's more than the life of his son, it's the charge given him by his wife to care for their son. He gave his word and in the darkness his words and the spectre of his wife come back to haunt him. What are we doing this for? asks his son. I don't know, he replies, but we have to keep going.

Ultimate meaning and purpose are unclear, but dying is not an option. The father tells his son I don't know what we'll find when we get to the coast, but we have to get there. It's an answer to the age-old question of why we're here. We may not know why, all we know is we are, and what we do in the meantime has significance because we're alive and that's sufficient reason to keep going.

The hope McCarthy describes is not the namby-pamby, pie in the sky by and by kind that whispers sweet nothings in your ear because it's impotent to deliver the goods. I'm not sure his characters ever use the word. But throughout the story they retain the belief that they're the "good guys" and like physicians, have sworn to do no harm. However they come out by the end of the road, they're coming out clean.

Integrity and fulfilling one's moral obligations are recurring themes in McCarthy's books and in The Road he declares they have an importance in excess of survival at any cost. What appears as weakness has unmeasurable strength. We may feel as though we've been thrown into an unpredictable and meaningless chaos where dog-eat-dog is the rule because resources are limited and anyone who believes otherwise is a fool. The Road tells us there are better ways to live and those who choose them will not be disappointed.

(Creative Commons image entitled "The Road" by petar_c via Flickr)

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