The Art of Embrace is Infinite

Greater than Guilt/15 - The art of life can be learnt by tasting the small instants of peace

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 29/04/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 15 rid“God is, in a sense, the other, par excellence, the other as other, the absolutely other - and nonetheless my standing with this God depends only on myself. The instrument of forgiveness is in my hands. On the other hand, my neighbor, my brother, infinitely less other than the absolutely other, is in a certain way more other than God: to obtain his forgiveness ... I must succeed in appeasing him. What if he refuses? As soon as two are involved, everything is in danger. The other can refuse forgiveness and leave me forever unpardoned."

Emanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings (English translation by Annette Aronowicz)

Every day millions of people do and say bad things and, shortly after or shortly before that, they say and do good things in all honesty. Because the human condition is simply the interweaving of evil and goodness. The Bible knows this ambivalent mystery of the person – perhaps the greatest mystery – very well. We can become intrigued or lost, we may lose the golden thread of life, but until our last breath we are still capable of goodness, because we are made in the image and likeness of an endless dance of mutual love, which no sin can stop. Cain killed his brother Abel, but he did not kill the Adam, the first (and last) man. And while Cain continues to kill Abel, the Adam continues, stubbornly, to resurrect him, every day. No wickedness of the fratricide within us is capable of destroying that original imprint of good engraved deeper into our being. In this sense, evil can be trivial, good can never. Evil has its own resilience, which can also be very big, but it is always smaller than the resilience of good. And it is this good that resists stubbornly to make us more beautiful than our many faults. That’s where the radical anthropological optimism of the Bible lies, which has saved the West after and amidst its most heinous sins – and which continues to save us.

The Bible offers us another symphony for the last meeting between David and Saul. To tell us about his consecration to be king and the change of his heart, Samuel's first book needed three stories. Now, to tell us about his departure from the scene, the text offers us two stories that are similar and different at the same time. This narrative abundance and surplus tell the richness of Saul, who continues to do evil but also to repent and be moved, honestly. The truth of Saul's wickedness does not cancel his blessings and repentances.

After the wonderful encounter with Abigail, David resumes his nomadic and fugitive journey. After getting to know where Saul, who had set out in pursuit of him, had made his camp, David, together with his companion (Abishai), enters the enemy camp at night: “And there lay Saul sleeping within the encampment, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head” (1 Samuel 26:7). David enters his tent, arrives at Saul's bedside, but takes only his spear and Saul's jug of water, and, again, not listening to the counsel of his companions, spares his king.

Saul and his army slept deep. The Hebrew word "tardemà" (slumber, deep sleep) is rare in the Bible. We find it twice in the book of Genesis. The first is to say the different sleep into which Adam fell when God took a rib from him to "make" the woman (Genesis 2:21-22). Then to indicate Abraham’s slumber, when in the great scene of the covenant, God reveals to him the future of his descendants in his sleep (15:13). Therefore, there is a theological slumber to mark two crucial interventions of God in some founding and decisive moments at the origin of the two fundamental pacts: the one between man and woman and the one between God and his people. Words and verbs in the Bible are never chosen randomly – in that kind of humanism of the word and words it would not be possible. This "deep sleep" means that something important is about to happen, an act that will mark the nature of the kingdom of David, the quality of his relationships. For the second time, David had the chance to kill Saul. He could have done it, but he didn't, he chose life and renewed the horizontal and vertical pact.

At the root of the founding pacts of our life there are many acts, choices and facts. There are many words, many "yes"-es, like those pronounced together and reciprocally on a wedding day, where the legacy of the ancient performative capacity of the word is still alive (while we say those special words a new reality is created, generated by our words). But, almost always invisibly, there are also many non-acts, non-facts, non-words: actions that we didn't do when we could have and should have done. There are many silences and unspoken words that have saved lives, honour and dignity. The moral quality of a life is also measured by actions we have not taken and words that we have not said, when common sense, friends, social norms, the law and even religion told us to do and say them. These "no"-s that express negation in grammar are verbs in life that become our flesh and that of those who live with us.

This non-killing of Saul is told twice by the Bible, not only to tell us about Saul and make him speak to us to reveal that corner of his heart which remained good and hidden - this double account is also a language that the Bible uses to tell us who David is, with generous redundancy. So far David is the anointed one, the king "according to God’s heart", the singer of psalms, the loved one; but David is also the one who could have killed his father-enemy on two occasions but did not do so. David is doubly non-patricidal, he is the double non-Oedipus, he is twice the anti-Zeus.

David leaves the camp and starts shouting from the opposite hill. Saul, unlike his soldiers, recognizes David's voice: “Is this your voice, my son David?” And David said, “It is my voice, my lord, O king” (26:17). From his hill, Saul answers David: “I have sinned. Return, my son David...” (26:21). The father, the anointed of the Lord, recognizes his sin, and implores David, "his son," to return.

This story of the "reverse prodigal son" is really powerful and suggestive. The son, David, was merciful to his father, saving his life. That mercy generates the repentance of the father, who asks his son to return. It is not uncommon for children to be merciful, and for fathers and mothers to repent and ask their wounded and abused son to "return". And when they return, sons and daughters regenerate their parents, becoming fathers and mothers of their own fathers and mothers. And while in Luke's parable, the first subversive act is that of the father (who grants the advance and the liquidation of the inheritance while he is still alive), here it is the son who transgresses the codes of war and spares his enemy. These imprudent and risky transgressions have the power to generate and regenerate fathers and children.

Saul acknowledges his guilt: “I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Behold, I have acted foolishly, and have made a great mistake” (26:21). And then he concludes: “Blessed be you, my son David!” (26:25). These are Saul's last words to David, luminous and true words of blessing. In that last meeting Saul will have seen the singer again, the one that soaked his heart with his lyre, the one that beat Goliath, the pure and handsome young man (like all young people). Like us, when we see a friend or a son for the last time and before closing our eyes we see them as beautiful and pure, just like on the first day.

The psalms that tradition attributes to David are splendid. But these short, intense, sincere psalms of Saul are no less beautiful and true: although dominated by his evil spirit, in these moments he manages to rise above his sins and intone some verses of blessing. We readers know that these songs of Saul are temporary, provisional and fleeting, and that soon he will be possessed by his evil demon again. We know that these reconciliations are transient, short and as ephemerous as intense.

But we also know that the psalms of reconciliation we are sometimes able to sing or welcome are more similar to these brief and unstable ones of Saul than to the eternal ones of David. We are also capable of reconciliations that generate the healing of relationships that lasts forever, but it’s more frequent to exchange embraces taking the form of an oasis within a desert of difficulty and conflict that remains there. After years of pain and struggle, we too, like Jacob and Esau, can discover that we are capable of embracing each other and crying together. Also, almost always, we let misunderstandings return, old and new, the small and big battles of yesterday and today. But the non-stability of peace and reconciliation do not cancel the truth and beauty of those embraces and tears which remain true and beautiful even when they last a few moments only. Although it is short-lived, the rose is no less true and beautiful than the pine and the olive tree.

We also know that our children sometimes return, and then we make a great feast. But, unlike the younger son in Luke's parable, at the end of the feast those same children often leave again for other forms of freedom; they return to the pigsty and we return to the door of the house to wait for them, without knowing if, when and how they will return again, or if this time the elder brother will celebrate with us.

The maturity and the profession of living are acquired by learning to taste the small, transient instants of reconciliation intensely, to celebrate with our children between a return and a new departure of theirs. Because if they are true and sincere encounters, they are perfect in their own way even if they are temporary. They are infinite because they are unstable and transitory. And to the voice of the past whispering in our ears: “It won’t last long” while we are in the embrace, mixing our tears with the other we should answer: “It isn’t so, go away, it doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is paradise in this true embrace”. Because it is within these temporary embraces that we reach and touch the eternal, it is there that we can experience the sublime and feel the deepest heartbeat of life. This is the only possibility we have to experience here on earth: eternity (or the thing that most resembles it). The deep and true desire and nostalgia of the final banquet of the definitive reconciliation must never take away the true joy of the short and temporary banquets that, almost always, are the only ones that we are able to prepare and consume together under our mobile tent. And so, trying to learn the gentle art of temporary hugs, in the end, perhaps, we will understand that the desert and the oasis were the same thing. And that we did not miss anything, because, even if we did not know, we had never come out from those brief true embraces. 

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