In the latest installment of his series “From the Chapel,” OSV publisher Scott Richert writes…
From the Chapel — June 23: ‘In media res’
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
Have you ever overheard just enough of a conversation so that you’re certain you know what it’s about, only to join in and be greeted by puzzled looks, because the conversation is about something entirely different? Most of us have had this happen at least once in our lives; for some, it’s a fairly common experience. Such a mistake can be embarrassing, of course, but it can also be a moment of clarity, one of those instances in which you’re forced to recognize a fundamental truth of human existence: When you close your eyes and cover your ears, the world continues on without you.
There’s a technique in storytelling — poetry, prose and film — in which the storyteller begins the narrative in media res, in the midst of things. As the story unfolds before you, you begin to realize that there’s a backstory, a history, that you don’t know. As bits of that history begin to surface in the story, your understanding of what you’ve already read or seen changes. A putative hero becomes a more complex figure; you may begin to develop some sympathy for a supposed villain. Actions that seemed to be black or white develop moral ambiguity and dissolve into shades of gray. If the storyteller using this technique is any good, you may be drawn out of your preconceptions not only about the story contained within this particular piece of art but also, by analogy, your preconceptions about the life in which you’ve found yourself in media res.
Because that is the human condition. Our story doesn’t start with our birth or with our first memories, nor will it end with our death. We live life in media res, born into a set of circumstances created by a history over which we have no control. During our time on this earth, of course, we can and do shape those circumstances and that history, as well as the circumstances and the history in which others will one day find themselves. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, and the choices we make will not only affect our contemporaries, both those we know and others we will never meet, but many who will not appear on this earth until long after we have returned to the dust.
Even in the best of times, there’s always a tension between our self-absorption, the reality that we can never fully shake the sense of being at the center of the world, and a broader recognition that we’re in the midst of a reality which we have very limited ability to change. One of the marks of both intellectual and spiritual maturity is the ability to recognize our own limits, and one of the most important of those limits is the extent to which we can understand the circumstances in which others find themselves.
Reading both literature and history — at least, the better works of each — provides us with the imaginative material that allows us to enter more fully into the lives of others. When literature becomes didactic, though, or history is not taken on its own terms but is distorted for ideological ends, both end up trapping us in the present moment, not liberating us from our preconceptions but binding us more completely to them, not helping us to understand the lives of others and the circumstances in which they found themselves — and thus destroying the conditions that allow us to understand our own lives better by analogy.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.