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Would it surprise you to learn that I have an unpublished novel sitting around?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.”
“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?”
“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.
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)