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Two Understandings Of Fidelity

I haven’t posted about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming in a while, because there is not much else to say about it, or much else being said about it in the media. TAC has just published Jeremy Beer’s review of the book online, and I wanted to highlight this insightful passage:

This raises the question of what it means to be faithful. For Ruthie—as for many people—it meant to not question that to which one is obligated, one’s own. Rod was more concerned about being faithful to his perception of the good, the true, and the beautiful—whatever that might mean for his loyalties to place and kin. Neither’s conception of faithfulness was capacious enough to include the other’s.

Thus, for example, Ruthie does not wish to know the details surrounding her diagnosis. She does not research her disease online, she asks few questions, and she refuses to hear her prognosis. Her primary concern is to remain faithful—to her family, her community, her God, her friends, her students. And she is worried that knowing all the facts about her disease will make this impossible, that she will sink into self-pity and anxiety.

Rod is baffled by this approach. He cannot understand that Ruthie’s principled rejection of knowledge about her disease allows her to be faithful to the most important things in her life. He has “difficulty in squaring her confident faith in God’s providence with her white-knuckled refusal to admit any facts that stood to undermine her hope.” Dreher attributes this stance to her “active” nature and her “commitment to duty, even to the point of self-sacrifice.” But this may be too moralistic an interpretation. Ruthie was committed to being faithful to that which was her own, which isn’t quite the same as self-sacrifice. This component of her character is her glory, but because it is also ruthlessly exclusionary it is also her limitation.

I don’t think I’ve read any other review that identified this aspect of the narrative, and I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the founders of Front Porch Republic discerned it. What Little Way is, in part, is a meditation on what it means to live a life of fidelity. You can only judge that by examining the telos of one’s faithfulness, of course. But even that is insufficient, because it is possible that there is nothing at all wrong with the telos of one’s fidelity, but that one has failed to see that it is not one’s nature to be absolutely faithful to a relative good. To put it in less abstract terms, there is nothing wrong with being faithful to one’s family and to one’s place, but not at the expense of one’s nature and calling. There is in that book that shocking confession my elderly father makes at the end, in which he — the pillar of fidelity to family and place — concedes that he doubts whether he made the right decision, all things considered. We can never really know, can we?

About reconciliation with my family and the family’s legacy, Beer writes:

Despite the author’s intentions, with respect to these issues the book ends on a note of uncertainty.

Oh, I think I intended this, in terms of setting down the truth of what happened, though it’s not what I expected to write when I started the book in January 2012. I figured the book would end with my niece Hannah and me in Paris, starting a new chapter in the story of our family’s life after a sad and painful one. Life is not Hollywood, though; as readers will recall, Hannah reveals something emotionally devastating to me on our last night in the city. There is no way to end the book neatly or with certainty after that, and looking back on it a year after I finished the manuscript, I can see that I was trying to talk myself into something that probably isn’t true, or at least is more mysterious and ambiguous than I was able to accept last year, as I completed the book. The final scene in the book, with its graveside benediction, is true. I believe it as strongly today as when I wrote it, and I have seen and heard it from so many others who have found life and hope in it. But I see now what I didn’t see a year ago: that I am outside that blessed circle, and can’t ever cross that boundary, no matter how far I’ve traveled.

This is a useful thing to learn, I think. But I’m going on faith.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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