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Two Understandings Of Fidelity

I haven’t posted about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming  [1]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 [2], 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.

change_me

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 [3] 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.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Two Understandings Of Fidelity"

#1 Comment By JohnE_o On July 18, 2013 @ 8:22 am

Polonius:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

#2 Comment By MichaelM On July 18, 2013 @ 9:19 am

“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.”

Okay, I think it might be time for my second reading – when my mother-in-law returns from Quebec (she’s been saving it for their cabin on the lac).

Speaking of – has the book been translated into French yet? I’m sure several of my m-i-l’s (many!) siblings would love it (some I’m sure would identify with you, some with Ruthie), but the english of most is merely servicable, and not literary.

[NFR: No, it hasn’t, and I doubt it will be. Sorry. — RD]

#3 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On July 18, 2013 @ 10:10 am

Rod, you have given me a lot to think about with this post, and my heart aches to hear the pain that is evident in your uncertainty about the book’s ending, and how it ended differently from how you hoped.

Just to be clear–and I went back and reread the last chapter this morning–is the “blessed circle” you talk about being outside of the one where Ruthie’s friends gather around her grave with the bottle of wine? Or when you and your family put down the stone?

Either way, it must feel strange indeed to be in this community again, and to love it, but also to feel separate from it. (It’s great that you have the church there.) I know that when I go back to Mississippi, I always feel a part of things and at home, but that feeling is, I think, predicated on the fact that I can get out of there as quickly as I want. If I actually lived there again, I think I might feel just as much an outsider as when I did.

Your grappling with these issues is certainly a podvig! But what a way to cultivate constancy and love!

Hang in there, and be good to yourself…

[NFR: No, the community is fine. We’re happy here. I’m talking about Ruthie’s personal rejection of me, and how the effects of that cannot be overcome. I deeply envy those here who have nothing but beautiful, loving memories of my sister, and who still feel the gift of her embrace. — RD]

#4 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On July 18, 2013 @ 10:31 am

Thanks for clarifying, Rod.

Though what you have described is a podvig, too.

#5 Comment By Annek On July 18, 2013 @ 11:59 am

“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?”

I haven’t read your book (it seems too sad), so I probably shouldn’t comment, but I would like to reply to your post anyway. Perhaps your father’s doubts about his life stem from the fact that his daughter, whose choices he supported was now gone, and his son, whose choices he had disagreed with was still here, and he wonders what the point was of rigidly adhering to an outlook on life that allowed friction, unhappiness and coldness to dwell in his family, thus sacrificing what could have been many happy times and rewarding relationships for all of you.

#6 Comment By Sam M On July 18, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

I think I might feel some similar things where I am located. Some for the same reasons, others for others. I do wonder, though, if there is any possibility that some of the similarities might be due to the fact that you and I are returning to extended families as men, with wives from outside the community. I think there is some biological and cultural baggage there that can’t be dismissed out of hand. I have some uncles who never left town, but strike me as marginally marginal to the whole set up in ways that seem similar to my experience.

On the upside, I think that greens have fringes and newspapers have margins for a reason. It expands the circle in interesting/useful/necessary ways. Sometimes this is a new dish, or a new set of friends or acquaintances, or a different set of skills when times get tough. Other times it can cause real consternation, like when someone makes fundamentally different decisions.

As long as the fundamental connection is there, which it is in my case, I think my liminality might be good for the group and good for me. I hope.

#7 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 18, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

You should have heard a young Russian friend trying to explain what podvig means to me this morning. “It’s something those crazy religious people think.”

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 18, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

“The more you get to know the “other” through personal relationships, the less frightening they become, as they become fleshed out and no longer perceived as stereotype.”

I got mugged here for saying this,verbally speaking. Given the commentaries of the past, “profiling” should have warned me! It was said that contrary to this, to know blacks is not to love them. I was also circumspect due to Rod’s own guidelines.

However, it is true. An Iranian man helped our family more than any other after our son was left for dead with brain damage by a hit-and-run driver. That changed perceptions, I can tell you.

Jesus’ own teaching about the Good Samaritan, a despised minority whom his listeners would naturally have aversive reactions to, as the moral hero, should guide us how we ought to rethink our own reflexive reactions.

#9 Comment By JohnE_o On July 18, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

from:

[4]

The word itself has been defined as “spiritual struggle”. Like so many things in Orthodoxy, in doing it, we understand it within our souls even if we cannot explain it. In performing a podvig, we find it as a means of drawing nearer to Christ as we travel along the path of salvation.

Analogous to jihad, then?

#10 Comment By Betsie Freeman On July 18, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

Annek, the book is sad but it’s also joyful and insightful and says a lot about life. Don’t avoid it because you think it’s unbearably sad — it’s way more than that.

I think I’m with the person who says he needs to read it again. I tend to read books really fast, and I find I get a lot out of them when I re-read.

#11 Comment By Annek On July 18, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

Betsie Freeman,

Thanks for your comment. Rod’s book sounds wonderful, and I’ve been trying to get myself to read it but I’m not quite there yet. In the meantime, I’m planning to buy it for my husband who loves books likes Rod’s.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 18, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

“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.”

I disagree whole heartedly with this rather mundane understand of Mrs Lemming’s position. She’s not rejecting knowledge, she is rejecting that anything interfere with her first love, next to Christ himself.

She is exmplifying this scripture:

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Phillipians 4

I think her husband was a very fortunate man. To have a woman so focussed in this manner through the grinds of life.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 18, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

I will risk crossing the line — “sometimes, I want to tell you to leave your sister alone.

smile

#14 Comment By David J. White On July 18, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

Polonius:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

The problem is that Polonius is a pompous, chattering old fool, and his “advice” is a collection of stale platitudes.

#15 Comment By JohnE_o On July 18, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

The problem is that Polonius is a pompous, chattering old fool, and his “advice” is a collection of stale platitudes.

Ad hominem

Is his advice correct or not? That’s the important thing.

#16 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 18, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

Frankly, if anyone but Rod had written the book I probably would not have gone anywhere near it. But I am very glad I did read it. And I’m one of those lightning readers who rereads a book many times, each time getting something new out of it.

Or maybe I’m just getting old and respond to things that I would not have a few years ago. This is not a book for the young.

[NFR: Getting [5] was a special treat to me, and I’m being very serious here. Thank you. — RD]

#17 Comment By Church Lady On July 18, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

JohnE_o,

I hope you understand that Shakespeare wrote that speech “to thine own self be true” facetiously, putting it in the mouth of the pompous windbag and fool, Polonius, and for good reason. He was not advocating that as a guiding philosophy, but ridiculing it, and pointing out that following one’s own true self could lead to grave and disastrous ends, as Hamlet finds out. Namely, for the simple reason that finding our true self is a very difficult, dangerous, and arduous task, filled with blood and tragedy, and not an something to be undertaken lightly, as if it were as easy as making a little speech to one’s children. Ophelia does not fare well in trying to follow that advice either.

#18 Comment By AnotherBeliever On July 18, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

Okay, NOW I’m going to go read it, Rod. I can’t even read the comments here for fear they are spoilers. Guess my “hook” is a mystery/anomaly.

#19 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 18, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

Rod, what surprised me most about the book was how many events you describe mirror in some way experiences in my own life, which in most ways could not be more different than yours growing up in West Feliciana Parish almost a generation later (you were born my first year in college). So I guess you’ve hit on some genuine universals.

I’m glad you liked the review. I enjoyed writing it.

[NFR: I just tried to leave a comment under your review, but wasn’t able to. I wanted to thank you for your kind words, and offer you the wish that all your enemies may melt before your psionic death rays like candle wax before a flame! — RD]

#20 Comment By JohnE_o On July 19, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

Hang on, Church Lady – just because WS had Polonius give that advice doesn’t mean it is bad advice. Consider:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Surely that is good advice!

#21 Comment By Chris 1 On July 19, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

What Beer’s comments get to is the interlinkage between our hierarchy of fidelities and our perceptions of reality.

I say “hierarchy” because Rod is faithful to his family, but that there are others to which Rod is faithful first, and it is clear that Ruthie is faithful to more than just her family, but that her family comes first.

This issue of fidelity raises issues of real or imagined infidelities.

Which is very possibly where Ruthie and Rob ran into difficulties, his fidelities being in an order that she understood as infidelity.

#22 Comment By Anne On July 19, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

Rod, I have read the book, but I’m not sure what you’re having second thoughts about. If it’s that Ruthie had faith in the decency of your character, after all, and felt pretty sure you’d move back home to watch over her family after her death, I’d bet that’s exactly how she felt. She may also have considered you a food snob and all-around smartass, but one doesn’t exclude the other, does it? At least in the mind of a sibling…?

#23 Comment By Church Lady On July 19, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

Good advice not to borrow money from friends, but without borrowing, there is no capitalism, and not much wealth or profit.

The point of Polonius’ speech is to ridicule the easy cliches that people throw around, while the play shows how hard it is to actually put them into practice. It’s not that there’s no truth to them, but that the living of them is painful, difficult, and tragic.

What happens to Polonius, after all? He’s killed while skulking around spying, by Hamlet, who is the only guy in the play who actually seems to care what the truth is. Does Polonius actually live by the motto of “to thine own self be true”? Of course not. He’s the very opposite of that, a flattering courtier who lies because it’s the very way he lives.

As another example, imagine what happens in a world without debt.