Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
In my previous article, I spent some time reflecting on the “existential” value of the subjunctive. This time I’d like to reflect instead on the meaning of another verbal mode, the most well-known and, perhaps, the one most taken for granted: the indicative. While the subjunctive is the mode of possibility, desire, the unforeseen and surprise, the indicative is the mode par excellence of reality and objectivity. Reality: nothing is more extraordinary and more terrible than reality! Dreams and desires are always secretly open evasion and escape, while reality remains hard, demanding and, at times, impenetrable. We could even say that reality’s got its own “specific density”. Reality isn’t expressed in terms of hypotheses. Reality, simply, is.
Last year I was sent to study theology in Paris. I unexpectedly found myself thrown into a reality very different to the one I come from: the reality of a great European capital, a new language, a new plan of studies, a new culture … and different food! The beginning was hardly easy. What made things even more difficult was the neighbourhood I found myself sent to live in. It had nothing to do with the splendid Paris I’d dreamt of as a child, when I’d find myself lost among the verse of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé or Rimbaud. It wasn’t anything like the Ville Lumière I’d imagined and desired reading Fitzgerald’s The Last Time I Saw Paris or Proust’s Recherche (to be read at least once in your life – and to be reread in small doses!). Nothing at all. I’d already visited Paris two or three times during my university years. I couldn’t wait for the moment in which I’d finally relax with long walks along the Seine, smoking a good cigar in the company of a friend. But it wasn’t to be the case. My new community was to be found in a small apartment about an hour from the centre by metro, right in the heart of the banlieue of northern Paris. The area’s known for one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in France and for the attacks at the Bataclan and Stade de France some years ago, but nothing much else besides – or at least, not at first sight. We’re talking here about Saint-Denis: a small piece of the Maghreb transplanted into the heart of the Île de France, a place rather rough round the edges and known for its underbelly of violence. Finding my place in this run-down and extreme environment wasn’t easy. Following my arrival, I began dreaming of other alternatives, living off happy memories from the past and nourishing myself on anger and on my rejection of my new situation. In my attempt to avoid reality at all costs – from the smell of urine at every street corner, to that of burned tires and hashish – I ended up living what we might call the “pathology of desire”, a kind of “subjunctive hyper-correctness” (which we might define as a fear so great of making a mistake that one tends to insert the subjunctive everywhere, even where there’s no need for it). Reality’s impact upon me was violent. It wasn’t just my sense of smell that felt offended, but my eyes and my ears too. I refused obstinately to live in the is, preferring to drown everything in a vague if. For months, my life was conjugated between the three alternatives “if only I [had been] …”, “if only I [had had]…”, “if only I [had done]…” living a tendency, in other words, towards continuous regret.
This tension wasn’t unfruitful, however. As a Jesuit, I believe that the beauty of obedience lies precisely here, within that tension which compels us to leave behind the self-imposed restrictions of our own little worlds, pushing us beyond limits characterized by paralysis and fear, broadening our possibilities towards horizons unknown and unexplored. Obedience (towards the reality of life, before all else) has the power to flush us out of hiding, pull us away from the restricted space of our own small ego, transforming us into men and women who are freer, mature adults. Obedience, lived well, can become the journey from possibility to reality, from the subjunctive to the indicative. We’ve can now begin to understand something about the need to conjugate life according to different modes.
In the hope that it would help me catch my breath during a particularly rough patch, I was given the possibility of changing community and transferring myself to central Paris. “Possibility”, here, is the keyword – a dream, or an escape. I began to undertake a serious reflection and discernment. On the one hand I was being offered what I’d desired from the very beginning (living in the heart of a capital where even the fog is a work of art); on the other, I had the suspicion that I would lose something if I left Saint-Denis. Something real. I wanted to give myself some time, listen to myself in order to make space for new intuitions. This helped me realise that, at a deeper level, what I felt was that there was nothing closer to reality than what I was living right then.
At the time I happened to be reading the novel History by Elsa Morante. This allowed me to return to the story of the little Useppe, at the same time one of the most wonderful and one of the most unnerving figures in literature. The novel had made a profound impression on me, particularly in the figure of this small child for whom the entire universe had the potential to be God’s sanctuary. While reading, I’d find this epileptic child playing with dried spit on the walls of the courtyard or with a beetle’s carapace as though he’d come across a treasure in these leftovers: he’d find a star even within excrement of an insect crushed underfoot! Whose eyes but those of a child can transfigure reality in such a way? History, a season in hell, conjugated in the indicative by a child, is transfigured by love. Is this escape, or evasion, of reality? I don’t think so – it’s more like an exercise in the way we look at things, training ourselves to recognize the heart of reality even in those aspects which are disfigured.
One’s free to stay put somewhere only once he’s also free to leave and take a wrong turn. That’s why I remained – in Saint-Denis and, deep down, within myself. The young Useppe, born in the Italy of the 1940s, taught me that it really is possible to “seek and find God in all things”, especially when God seems to be hiding, where the sour smell of poverty and suffering forces us to reach outside ourselves and look at the world and at reality with new eyes. Once we have the courage to allow ourselves to be driven out of our little cocoons, it’s reality that allows love to flourish. A professional theologian would probably prefer talking about in-carnation, that dynamism in the indicative which drives God outwards from himself in order to collocate himself within the human. “But – you might object – what changes, if reality always remains the same?” Nothing. Nothing at all changes. But we could argue about that after you’ve changed your glasses!