The Queen of Hearts

Warning: A quoted passage contains vulgarity.

Would it surprise you to learn that I have an unpublished novel sitting around? Doesn’t everybody? So changed is the publishing business, that it’s almost impossible for a first-time author to even get a manuscript read. (If you are a literary agent or an acquisitions editor, or know one, please click on the “Contact Me” link above.)

But that’s neither here nor there. My novel is a story about cops and street gangsters in the small New Jersey City of Paterson. The protagonist is a young police officer named Ruth Green, who learns to trust the deep well of compassion inside her during a week of horrific violence. (Does that sound like a story I might have written?)

At one point in the story, Ruth is on patrol late at night and arrives at the scene of a house fire, actually, a fire bombing. Seeing a young woman waving for help at an upstairs window, Ruth forces her way in through the back door, succumbs to smoke, and is rescued by the fire department. The woman at the window and the man with her — a paroled gangster — both die.

The next evening, Ruth is recovering at home with her housemate and friend, Diane, who is an attorney in the Prosecutor’s Office. Ruth talks by phone with her father, Rudy:

After a pause, Rudy Green said, “Dory told me about…about the tragedy. I went on the New Jersey News web site and read what happened. I’m very proud of you, Ruth.”

Ruth was quiet for a moment. “That’s what everybody is saying, but it’s wrong, I know it’s wrong. I messed up.”

“How?”

“I don’t know how, but I know I did. I’ve been trying to remember…Oh my God.”

“Ruth…? Ruth…? Are you crying?”

“No. Oh, Daddy, I messed up so bad…I killed them. It’s all my fault. Two people died because I was stupid.”

“What are you talking about? You didn’t throw that Molotov cocktail.”

“No, but I went in the house when I shouldn’t have. The Fire Department had to rescue me first. That’s what they said – Now we can go look for that girl. I wasted their rescue time.”

“You don’t know that. They may have been done for before you even got there.”

“And I don’t know that either.”

“No. But here’s something I do know – no loving effort is ever wasted. It can never do more harm than good.”

“Dad…that doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, I guess not. But I believe it anyway.”

After Ruth gets off the phone, she sits down to dinner with Diane, and they talk about what has happened:

After a moment, Diane said, “I heard you carrying on, beating your chest and tearing your hair. What crimes did you confess to?”

“Stupidity. And I guess two counts of manslaughter by stupidity.”

“Yeah, I heard that part. You know you’re still being stupid.”

“I never should have gone in. There was no chance of doing any good…”

“I heard that too. But how would you ever know that if you didn’t try? If you hadn’t tried, you’d be sitting here crying to me that you killed them because you were too chickenshit to save them. Is that what Rudy told you, too?”

“No. He said that nothing we do out of love can ever be harmful.”

“Did he really? God, I love that man.” After a minute, she said, “You know, he really doesn’t make any less sense than the cynics. I was in the coffee room this morning when a couple of the arson investigators came back from your fire scene. They were talking about how the Fire Department found the couple in the house. Do you know about that?”

“No.”

“Well, they were both naked…”

“I know that. I was there when they were carried out.”

“Yeah. Well, they were both naked, and she was on the floor under the window, against the wall, face down. The guy was on top of her. So one of these investigators is talking about how they must have known they were finished and figured they might as well get one more doggie-style fuck before they went to Hell.”

“What a terrible thing to say.”

“Isn’t it? Didn’t it ever occur to these guys that even though this dead guy was a gangster, maybe he loved this girl? Maybe he loved her enough that he would use his body to shield her from a raging fire?…If I’ve got to listen to people saying dumb things, I’ll take Rudy. Every time.”

“Yeah…maybe what Dad should have said was that nothing we ever say from love can be harmful.”

Many fiction writers will tell you that fictional characters have minds of their own, and often say or do things that surprise their author. For my part, I really didn’t know that Rudy was going to say that until it was out of his mouth. I felt obligated to “walk it back”, so Ruth immediately said that it didn’t make sense, and Rudy (“God I love that man!”) conceded without surrendering: “No, I guess not. But I believe it anyway.” Later, Ruth completed the walk-back: ” … maybe what Dad should have said was that nothing we ever say from love can be harmful.”

But, I have always suspected that Rudy really was speaking for me, and I marvel that I am completely seduced by this nonsensical idea: no loving effort, nothing we do from love, can ever do more harm than good. It makes no sense. Anyone can think of oodles of (apparent) counter-examples. (In my next post, I will tell you a true story that is a striking counter-example.) But I find myself believing it anyway.

And so, in my chagrin and confusion, I turn to you, dear reader, for help. Through the magic of the internet and the “comment” feature below, please tell me, do you agree with Rudy that nothing that is done out of love can ever do more harm than good? Do you agree with Ruth, only that nothing we say from love can ever be harmful?Do you think they’re both nuts? Why? (Remember that 40% of your final grade will be based on class discussion.)

Extra credit: This question will probably appeal more to the religiously-inclined than others, which is a bit unfair, but here goes: Obviously, in saying it makes no sense, but I believe it anyway, Rudy has gotten to the heart of faith. Has he also, in saying that nothing done from love can do more harm than good, also expressed the heart of your faith? In other words, is this simple statement implicit in a Jew saying, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One; and you shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”? Is this implicit in a Christian saying, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life”? And so forth.

Discuss.

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
                                                                     -Alice in Wonderland.
(by Lewis Carroll) 


6 responses to “The Queen of Hearts

  1. I’m inclined to believe that to act from love is never wrong. This is how I read the Apostle Paul’s “love never faileth” (1 Corinthians 13:8), which he surely would not have written if he hadn’t had a sure sense of love’s infallibility as a guide to right action, a sense born of years of effort to serve as a faithful and penetrating interpreter of the Holy Spirit’s teachings. Elsewhere he wrote “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10), which implies that to act contrary to love in the interest of some supposed higher good is a breach of divine law. And again, “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6); without love where is faith? But I trust these Biblical advices not because they are scriptural but because my heart recognizes them as truth. As George Fox and the early Friends used to say, the Holy Spirit “opened” these scriptures to me.

    Have you persuasive evidence to the contrary? By their fruits ye shall know them, Jesus said, and if people motivated only by love can be shown to have foolishly done evil instead of good, then I’ll be obliged to change my views. But one caveat: most deeds are done by human actors that are fallen, and therefore fallible: “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel,” Proverbs 12:10. This prepares me to expect a trace of self-serving and ignorance-clouded shadow over almost every good deed, however splendid-seeming or love-born, my own included. You must therefore prove to me that a truly evil fruit came from the love-component of the motivation and not the shadow.

    But I would encourage the reader not to think of the rightness or wrongness of acting from love as something that could be tested by experiment, correlating motivation with “goodness of outcome” as if means and ends could be separated. In _The Destiny of Man_ (1931), Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) argues that wherever there is a distinction made between means and ends, evil means will be justified as necessary to achieve the “good” end. But the spiritually good cannot be identified with an external end such as happiness, because it inheres rather in the state of the moral agent, who longs for purity of conscience and freedom from deceit. “Only the pure, free, and original conscience stands in the presence of God,” he writes, “and its judgments alone are authentic.” Morality, therefore, is a way of life, independent of ends. “The important point is what man himself is like…. if he is not of God’s spirit, no lofty aims will improve him and he will always apply bad means, substituting them for ends.” In particular he notes that the Christian religion has become infected with “heavenly utilitarianism,” where one is urged to good works and love of one’s neighbor merely for the sake of attaining the bliss of paradise. This is not the kind of “acting from love” we are talking about.

    Heavenly Father, restore to us the loving hearts we had when You created us in Your image, that we may again act innocently, looking to Your Holy Spirit for guidance and trusting that the outcome of our action will always be in accordance with Your perfect will: in the name of Jesus, who taught us to ask boldly, Amen.

  2. Dear Paul,
    When I finally had the leisure to write out and post my answer, three or four days had already passed since you’d posted your question, “do you agree with Rudy that nothing that is done out of love can ever do more harm than good? Do you agree with Ruth, only that nothing we say from love can ever be harmful? Do you think they’re both nuts? Why? (Remember that 40% of your final grade will be based on class discussion.)” I was expecting to be at least #17 in the string of replies. But it seems I was the only one in the class willing to open their mouth. Nor has my opening it, two nights ago, yet provoked any of my classmates to indicate agreement or disagreement with me. What’s going on with the class? WordPress indicates that there are at least 18 people subscribing to your blog.

    Is no one paying attention to it but me? A depressing thought, but a possibility. Or is it that the question was too challenging, or too deep to be answered quickly — don’t expect responses until the middle of next week? Or was it felt to be threatening, in the sense that if you express trust in following love’s guidance, somebody’s sure to shoot you down for your naïveté, and if you express cynicism about it, someone’s sure to scorn you for your little faith, so that you’re waiting to see which kind of answer is fashionable? (I’ve done that myself, so don’t be ashamed of having to say so.)

    Come on, class, don’t make the teacher feel insecure, or he might turn in his chalk and quit teaching! You don’t run into teachers of the spiritual stature of Paul Hamell every day, and you know that!

    In order to spare Paul the task of having to do this himself, I’m going to ask the next question on the exam (please forgive me, Paul, for elbowing you out of the way): 2. What do you think is causing so much silence in response to Question No. 1? Do you find it a hard question? (Fermat’s Last Theorem proved a hard question, too, in spite of its looking so simple.) Are you praying for God to tell you the right answer, and God hasn’t sent you a sign, a message or a conviction yet? Is it a scary question, because the answer may require you to change your whole approach to life?

    • John, thanks for all of your participation. Of course, I have been wondering about the silence in response to my questions, but I assume that the reasons are as varied as the lives of my 38 subscribers and the others who also see my posts from time to time. While I hope that some have remained silent because they are wrestling with metaphysical, moral, and theological questions of great import, I also know that some have been quiet because they are busy, just as I have been. For instance, I know that one of my subscribers is kept busy with his legal studies about 85 hours a week, and was further burdened with a visit from his parents this weekend. Another subscriber has a full-time job, graduate studies at a top university, and a wife who has been unwell. Such is life.

      Your first comment was a beautiful translation of what I have been thinking and writing, into a learned, Christian world-view; if I say any more about it at this time, I will anticipate things that will follow in later posts. Your second comment already anticipates me, particularly your closing question, but that is (almost obviously) why I am writing this blog to begin with; faith in love, which is a corollary of faith in God, but is in no way dependent on even belief in God, requires a different way of conducting ourselves than what is common. As that other Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians (8-1) “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” Our arrogance has broken many things, and continues to do so. Only love will truly build, and love asks us to be different than we have been, to take (seeming) chances, to live by faith in love.

      I still hope to hear from others about this, will post a challenging story as soon as I can now. -Paul

  3. Dear friends,
    Please forgive me if I added to the weight of anyone’s cross by my bullying theatrics (“Why hasn’t anyone else responded to Paul!?”), which I hope you all could tell were in jest. Still, if I were working eighty-five hours a week, or too ill, or too stressed by life, to sit at a computer and frame my thoughts in well-reasoned words, I wouldn’t have liked being jested at in that fashion. May you all continue to be nourished by Paul without my needling. I’m sure I’ll continue to talk back to Paul from time to time, but hopefully more soberly and sensitively.

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