“Knowing what I know, what will I do?”
This question, posed by Stephen Garber in Visions of Vocation, has been rolling around in my head for several days. It is at once freeing and paralyzing.
Garber uses his question to help shape a larger discussion of vision, ethics,
decision, and action. He suggests that almost every great story imposes the dilemma on its characters. Some wrestle with the responsibility of knowing, some with choosing, some with putting choice into action. Regardless of the angle of engagement, every enduring character must deal with with the question.
Knowing what I know, what will I do?
My favorite recent encounter with this dilemma comes from Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story tells of two doctors, one a world-class surgeon and one the self-proclaimed worst doctor in the country, trying to choose their paths in war-ravaged Chechnya. The moral landscape of their communities has collapsed through years of oppression, torture, and deprivation. Their own lives have been wrecked by family conflict and desperate choices. How do they bind up such deep wounds, both in themselves and in those left in their country?
I could go on, as any good bookworm would. Stories like this give us the chance to examine areas of humanity and morality to depths we don’t often explore. They allow us to talk about right and wrong and love and heartbreak in general terms. The fact that the events happen to characters and not to us shields us from the blast of what we might discover.
But stories like Marra’s also call us to account, particularly in terms of knowing. His characters struggle with vision. They fight against internal and external forces in an effort to see the truth of their situation, cruel as it may be. Only when their vision clears do they finally see and act.
It makes me wonder about our own blind spots. We often barricade ourselves against what we don’t want to know, whether in terms of politics or finances or our loved ones’ behavior. It is often easier not to see, because to see might mean to know, and to know conjures up the nagging question once more. Knowing what I know, what will I do?
When I think about this in terms of my own professional world of church and academics, I sometimes get frustrated–and I think with good reason. These institutions behave as institutions, at times more concerned with self-protection than with mission. Part of my calling as a writer and a pastor is to see things that others do not and to point it out in a helpful way. Sometimes, that’s with the fervor of a prophet. Sometimes with the nuance of a storyteller. Sometimes, neither method seems to break through.
Still, for all the faults with me and with the institutions in which I live, I think the ideals of courageous thought and action give us something to work toward. The difficulty is to keep power or fear or money from lulling us into blindness. Our Christian identity depends on our ability to create an environment in which clear vision and courageous action are not only possible, but expected.
So, knowing what you know, what will you do?