Roger Rosenblatt Ponders a Bertrand Russell Essay

December 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: One’s stock temptation is to make fun of them– the thoughts that occur in the holiday season about the assessment of one’s life– what’s its purpose? What has it been worth?– That sort of thing.

The stock temptation is to treat such fruitless sentiments as a common joke. But then the sky goes dark, and the street lights and the house lights in the villages and the cities pop on, and the cold drives you toward the fires both of wonder and recrimination.

And you are faced with yourself again. Bertrand Russell wrote an essay about all that, a short and sweet essay called "Three Passions I Have Lived For."

Here are Russell’s three: The longing for love; the search for knowledge; and what he called "the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind."

Of these three, the first two require no external reminders. One seeks love because love brings ecstasy and relieves loneliness; one seeks knowledge to understand the human heart. It is the third passion, the unbearable sympathy for the suffering of others that seems to call for frequent updating.

So the world accommodates, with glimpses of that unbearable sympathy in Africa, where among the spasms of slaughter and disease, volunteers labor to keep that tortured continent alive; or in Iraq, where, between the pictures of invasions and explosions, a soldier occasionally is spotted lifting a child to safety.

Or within our own borders, where those without homes or food are attended by those who refuse to let them go under. Dickens forced Scrooge to regard such sympathetic acts in the spirit of Christmas present.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Seamus Heaney told of an incident in the 1970s in Northern Ireland. A minibus of workers was stopped by gunmen, who demanded that any Protestant aboard step out.

The bus full of Protestants tried to protect the lone Catholic among them. One squeezed his hand. But that one stepped forward anyway. And then all the others on board were mowed down, shot and killed, because the gunmen were the IRA.

In his speech, Heaney saw the horror, but mainly he noted the squeeze of the hand. Of all such things, of what Russell called "The whole world of loneliness, poverty and pain," he wrote: "I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot."

That constitutes the "unbearable" part, passion undercut by the powerlessness. I was born during one world war, lived through several others, and will likely die during yet another– war being excused as politics by other means.

Of course, reason and gentleness are politics by other means as well, but they require a different sort of passion. Russell’s ideas of passion were straightforward and in the right place, which made his life worth living.

The identification of one’s passions tests a life in all seasons. What’s a life worth?

But then the sky goes dark and house lights and the street lights and the house lights in the villages and in the cities pop on, and the cold drives you toward the fires of both wonder and recrimination, and you are faced with yourself again, and a world that needs help. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.