This is the third of three essays on grace. The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In the novel 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s character Amalfitano thinks about a drug store he used to go to in Barcelona. For convenience’s sake he would go in the middle of the night, and he always found the pharmacist reading in his chair. The pharmacist’s selections troubled Amalfitano.
“He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartelby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.”
To Amalfitano, this was a kind of cultural laziness at best, at worst a cultural sclerosis leading one day (and perhaps soon) to the death of culture (as he knew it). Nothing will ever be learned about the world if we choose only the easy things, turning our heads away from those moments when, as Bolaño/Amalfitano continues, “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Trying to understand the world requires some effort and the willingness to get dirty doing so. To read the perfect works of the masters—indeed to rely on anything we might call “perfect”—is a graceless pleasure, for grace lurks in the shadows and cracks of the world, there for the taker, but only taken by the one who can see it.
The unknown is an essential, core element of grace. Maybe it is where grace comes from, or perhaps it is the conveyor of grace, the medium through which grace passes into the light of day to touch someone’s life. To recognize grace is to surrender control (or pride, hubris, arrogance—call it what you will), and in the surrender a new kind of freedom is born. It is the freedom to make something of what we are given.
Nassim Nicolas Taleb is a statistician, philosopher, and financial trader who has made it his life’s work to understand random events. It all began when civil war erupted in Lebanon in the 1970s and Taleb, whose family included two deputy prime ministers and a supreme court justice, became swept into the conflict. The adults said the war would last only a few days, but it stretched to 17 years, and with each turn of events the adults came up with new reasons for it.
“Later, upon replaying the wartime events in my memory as I formulated my ideas on the perception of random events, I developed the governing impression that our minds are wonderful explanation machines, capable of making sense out of almost anything, capable of mounting explanations for all manner of phenomena, and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability.”
The random is cousin to the unknown, and Taleb’s business is harnessing knowledge about randomness in order to help people make decisions that protect their investments. His methodology separates randomness into two kinds: the known-unknowns (more or less predictable, manageable patterns of financial fluctuation), and the unknown-unknowns (big, system-altering shocks like the stock market crash of 1987, the attacks of 9-11, or the economic collapse of 2008). These unknown-unknowns Taleb calls “Black Swans.” These are things quite out of the ordinary that do, in fact, occur from time to time. Over his professional life, Taleb has made a modest fortune by dealing with risk and randomness in this way, both for himself and others.
Still, looking back at a quarter century of his work, he is troubled by his findings.
“Is the world unfair? I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness. The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature. The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside. Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more random than they were the previous day. It is becoming unbearable. I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting.”
Taleb, it seems, has caught Roquentin’s malaise. Yet like Roquentin, Taleb finds ways to cope, and at the end of the book, he provides a list of 10 principles that might minimize the effects of Black Swans and help us deal with them when they do happen. The last principle is the clincher and the most important: “Make an omelet with the broken eggs.” That is to say, whatever we might do to hedge again the worst events (encompassed in the first 9 principles), we should be ready to pick up the pieces after disaster strikes, be it a Hurricane Katrina or a stock market crash, and rebuild with what is left, in whatever condition we find it.
It’s a good list, but it was incomplete in some deeper way that could challenge the Black Swans on their own, definitive, inevitable terms that take no prisoners and offer no excuses. To do this required a trip back to his home town of Amioun, Lebanon. There, Taleb went to the cemetery and visited the graves of his father and other loved ones. With him, he carried the works of Seneca in the original Latin, bearing in mind an adage originally attributed to Cicero that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”
“I wanted to prepare myself for where I will go next. This is my plan B. I kept looking at the position of my own grave. A Black Swan cannot so easily destroy a man who has an idea of his final destination.”
The Black Swans that Taleb writes about are mostly negative, harmful events. For St. Paul, grace was a Black Swan of a different sort, life-altering, inexplicable, yet beautiful and redeeming. For Ruby Turpin, recognizing grace in her life was the Black Swan that snuck up on her when Mary Grace threw a book at her and called her out for what she was.
For those who can recognize grace—whether in their own lives or in the operaton of the universe as a whole—grace becomes an expected part of life while remaining a Black Swan nonetheless, for they have no way of explaining their ability to recognize grace or why it was even visited upon them in the first place. There may not be a “reason for everything,” a reason that might console us, take away the unfairness of life, or explain why one person deserves something while others don’t. Truth be told, we really don’t need reasons for everything.
Be humble. Accept grace and build a good life because of it. Never count on it to last, but take it while it is given. Seek no reasons for grace, but live with it and share it with others freely, openly, with no reason for sharing it but that it is good.
Notes and Credits
The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/. She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Consolation, and it depicts a person in the arms of another. I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web. Her use of color and muted, vague definition touches me. Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.
Direct quotations: Roberto Bolaño, 2666, trans. Natasha Wimmer (Picador, 2008 [orig. Spanish version 2004]), p. 227. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (Random House: 2007), p. 10 (replaying wartime events), p. 215 (Is the world unfair?), and p. 375 (cemetery).
There is much more I could write on grace, and I may at some point soon. The twists and turns of grace in the history of the Reformation are instructive as a lesson in counter-intuitive consequences. Some of the reformers who sought to return to a simple Pauline church of grace and community wound up creating new order of oppression—Calvin comes to mind most prominently here. It’s a return to a fundamental question of the meaning of human will. For the Calvinists (and some extent all Protestants, from Luther forward), faith and salvation by grace alone—sola fide—was a doctrine that freed ordinary people from the scrutiny of the Church. In the Catholic doctrine, salvation through good works simply placed too much power in the hands of the church to rule on the affairs of ordinary people and political powers alike. Sola fide took the Church out of the picture, but almost as quickly the Protestants began to create political and other alliances that arrogated to their churches great powers that were used to enforce a new orthodoxy just as brutal (if not moreso) than the Catholic orthodoxy it replaced. This is, however, a discussion for another day.