It’s a festive weekend. We’ve just had Halloween, and it’s fall break. Just a few blocks away in the parks, or a few miles away in the countryside, the leaves are a whirling blend of reds and oranges and yellows. The cold clear gusts that announce the coming of winter storms have yet to strip the oaks and beeches and elms bare.
Multitudes of Columbians will be celebrating the end of the encumbrance of midterms. Pumpkins and pies—with an occasional ghoul or goblin—are essential props. A ballot paper can round the weekend out nicely.
But sometimes it’s difficult to justify taking the time to relax. After a lull, the stress of the semester’s run-in will clamp down on us yet more tightly. Time off gives us a chance to find pleasure, but the temporary high of a Dionysian frolic falls short of lasting happiness.
Personal fulfillment is hard enough to find. It’s hard not to feel guilty if we let ourselves think about the monumental horror and suffering of the world. Who dares smile on a planet where 500 families know the horror of murder every year in Chicago; where two and a half million Syrians have had to flee their homes; where over a million abortions occur each year in the U.S. alone.
Maybe, if the raw fact of human suffering were to truly confront my consciousness, I’d believe there were only two options—total hedonistic dissipation along “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” lines—or total self-sacrifice, to fling away comfort and privilege and alleviate some pain before my end.
At any rate, I can’t be a blasé optimist and say, “Everything’s getting better and better, and technology and human rights and liberal democracy and global trade will make everyone healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
But I’ve found that I can be hopeful even if I can’t be optimistic. St. Augustine wrote his monumental philosophy of history, the “City of God,” in the fearful times between the sack of Rome and the siege of his hometown of Hippo.
Even as the world he knew crumbled, Augustine argued that although all we can see from within human experience is a sea of chaos and selfishness, there is a divine purpose working through history. If God became man as Jesus of Nazareth and suffered with us to usher in a new age of peace and healing, suffering has purpose and we are loved.
Samwise Gamgee asks Gandalf at the end of the Lord of the Rings, “Is every sad thing going to come untrue?” City of God answers, Yes.
But Augustine’s transcendent vision of the goodness of a God who sacrifices himself to satisfy the deepest longings of humanity can feel a little too remote. Does it tell us whether celebrating this weekend is worthwhile or not?
Sometimes, the best answers are found in stories, not in the heads of philosophers. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fiction is a necessity.” It’s true: Every culture tells itself stories to make sense of life.
Literature Humanities submerges us in many great stories. One of those is Don Quixote, that massive tome of the adventures of the foolish Don, his hapless horse Rocinante, and his bumblingly lovable servant Sancho Panza. It’s no farce, but a deep comedy that holds up humor as a path to finding hope.
Miguel de Cervantes, Quixote’s creator, had been a soldier, a prisoner, and a slave. He fought at the great naval battle of Lepanto and saw some of the ugliest sides of human life. He spun the experience not into bitterness, but into an unparalleled hilarity. The silly old gentleman who wants to be a great hero, defending the poor and rescuing damsels in distress, gets himself humiliated by windmills and laughed at by everyone he meets.
But, by the end of the story, people have stopped laughing at Quixote and started laughing with him. By making himself such a laughingstock, he reminds the snobs and cynics to laugh at themselves. And his idealism has something infectious to it, stirring many hearts to the hope and heroism of knight errantry.
On his deathbed, Quixote hasn’t righted very many wrongs, but he has touched many lives. And he’s been changed: He’s learned to admire the servant who’s become his friend, Sancho Panza.
Don Quixote appeals to our longing to save the world—but he reminds us to laugh at ourselves first. We can do some good and bring some healing to humanity’s hurts. But we have to start at the task with humility and with a hope that good deeds matter even if we don’t see their fruit. And if, in the process, we acquire just one friend as dear as Sancho Panza, I think that’s a life well-lived.
Cervantes and Augustine knew that life is a battle against evil—and that sometimes that battle is best fought by feasting in the fast-fading beauty of the autumn.
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.
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