A tale of two servants:
The famous personalist philosopher Martin Buber, whose name is associated with the I-Thou relation, underwent a profound conversion in his life. One day he was preoccupied with some religious duty he felt he had to perform after class. At the end of the class a student asked to speak with him. Buber was still preoccupied with whatever the religious duty was that he felt he had to perform.*
Many of us are angry at Toni, and not without reason.
Through the brief window we’ve been given in the Bernette household, we’ve seen Toni running around and helping those in need while taking for granted what she has at home. Just because she has a roof over her head and all immediate family members are accounted for doesn’t mean that all is well in her own house, but she can’t see what we see – and when she does catch some glimpses of the problem under her nose, she refuses to see it for what it is.
Perhaps it is because she sees so much pain already in the faces of the citizens she’s trying to help in the madness that is post-flood New Orleans. Commenters have talked of actress Melissa Leo correctly getting that look on Toni’s face of this entire world on her shoulders giving her some hell. It’s a rough place, constantly trying to defend the civil rights of other people. To those she serves in that world, she is a counselor in every sense of the word…but at home, she could unwind. Loosen up. Show her anger. Maybe she could even be coaxed into having some fun despite herself.
He later described the meeting with the student by saying that he answered all the questions the student asked but left unanswered the questions the student left unasked. What Buber meant was that he was not sufficiently present to read the real reason the student wanted to speak with him. Later he learned that the student committed suicide.*
There is a huge disconnect that Toni has never really bridged in all of her efforts to help the disadvantaged, and it’s a trap that we all fall into when we are faced with the problems we read about in other places versus what we have at home. Anyone who has a caring nature and the wherewithal to follow that nature wherever it goes stands before events and horrors that can make the mundane seem absolutely trivial. Tragedies a world away can blind you to the terrors of your own backyard.
In Toni’s case, the tragedies beyond her home are closer by, but the blindness is the same. The problems of one’s child, the struggles of a spouse…they are eclipsed by the unlawful shooting of unarmed citizens in need of help, by musicians harassed by the police, by people who want to bring the storm-tossed ones home, dead or alive, despite bureaucracies that would deny this right. And it doesn’t take much to prioritize those trials over what seem like trivial goings-on at home in comparison.
It is this imbalance, this tipping of the scales towards the priorities of others that got Toni indignant whenever she found Creigh asleep anywhere around the house outside of his own bed. How dare he upset her priorities? He’s not supposed to be weak like this – he doesn’t deal with what she sees every day. How can he know what real pain and loss is? Dear God, get off the porch, and don’t let Sophie see you like this. Don’t let the world see you like this.
Buber saw that the religious thing to do when the student asked to see him was to be present to the student. The Jewish philosopher came to see that the holy person is the person who is present to others.*
Thing is, Toni is all too present to others, learning quite belatedly how ethereal she has been to the one who should have been closest by. She still can’t think beyond her mentality in the trenches of Louisiana’s courts – never give up, there is always a way, never say die.
But people do give up. They can have a damn hard time seeing a way. Everyone, eventually, dies.
And Toni is left with one of the cruelest lessons of all – that life is so, so short and some things cannot be solved through attention to paperwork, timelines, and points of law. The thousand intricate cuts of a loved one’s inner pain defy any and all civil statutes. There is no logic, no rhyme or reason, only insurmountable anguish that finds its tortured peace, at long last, at the bottom of a mighty river.
*From this article on aging and mystery. Sure, it’s in a Catholic journal, but Buber’s messages reached well beyond the Judaism in which they were based.