To Tip the Balance

side by side series of the covers of For the Time Being and Holy the Firm

In For the Time Being, Annie Dillard recalls telling a child about the tsunami in Bangladesh that killed 138,000 people on April 30, 1991. Dillard admitted it was “hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.” The child replied that it’s easy: “Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.” I think about this image as I try to wrap my head around what we’ve lost over the past year’s pandemic. How do we bring ourselves to see its scope? Visualizing the numbers is one thing, and some have tried. But how do we bring ourselves to see the numbers’ meaning? As I write, we have just surpassed three million reported COVID-19 deaths. How do we imagine three million irreplaceable lives? Dillard addresses a similar question later in For the Time Being, published in 1999: “There are 1,198,500,000 people now alive in China,” she writes. “To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself—in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love—and multiply it by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.”

Nothing to it, indeed. In part the impossibility of imagining such a scope is protective. It’s hard enough to squarely face our own grief. What would it mean for us to sit with the losses the entire world has suffered? What would it mean to gaze without blinking at the incalculable: the cumulative mourning of each human who has lost a loved one to this virus, of hundreds of thousands of children who have lost their parents and parents who have lost their children? What would it mean to truly take in the open-ended sorrow of those who have been unable to mark their losses with communal rituals? If we gathered all the tears shed this year, which lake would they fill, which ocean?

Even apart from death’s agonies, how do we begin to quantify, much less understand, the other, smaller, losses in our singular lives? I have not been in the same room as my parents, or even the same country, for more than 18 months. It is hard to express how much I’d give to smell my mom’s warm neck today. How many tickles and hugs and attentive gazes have my children missed in not visiting any of their family in all this time? Is the number in the dozens? The hundreds? How many delighted screams have they foregone in the absence of birthday parties and school playground time? How many shared meals have we foregone with friends, how many conversations meandering as the candles burn low in pools of fragrant beeswax? Go too far down this path, and I melt like my imagined candles. My mind can’t dwell too long on what’s been lost. I need my emotional reserves intact to continue facing the uncertainties of each day.

But I know I can go too far the other way. Living in denial of all we’ve lost is its own temptation, seeking pleasures or distractions to soften the days. In her 2012 book Illness as Narrative, Ann Jurecic notes the remarkable silence in the aftermath of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, which, despite killing perhaps 50 or even 100 million people worldwide, “nearly vanished from popular consciousness.” Jurecic reads this gap as the effect of a missing narrative form, one that she argues developed later in the twentieth century to accommodate illness. Are we better equipped today? I’ve heard people joke about a new Roaring Twenties around the vaccination corner, and I feel the pull of a good party or a hundred of them. But the 1920s brought to the United States not just the glitz of Gatsby for those who could afford it but also the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned Asian immigrants and set quotas on others, as well as the second rise of the KKK. What is the world we want to see on the other side of this excruciating season, and what will it take to get there? What can healing look like, not just for an individual but a pained body politic, a globe?

I hadn’t expected Annie Dillard to address these questions when I recently returned to her books, famous for their keen attention to the natural world. But for all her fascination with praying mantises and muskrats, Dillard’s most persistent concerns are with the joint mysteries of good and evil, beauty and brutality. How, she asks time and again, can a world full of such glory also subject us to such sorrow?

These concerns are especially present in Dillard’s narrative nonfiction. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won a 1975 Pulitzer, Dillard turns an unblinking eye to the violence thrumming through the natural world, to the “burgeoning of disease, the dank baptismal lagoon into which we are dipped by blind chance many times against our wishes, until one way or another we die.” But the book also hums with wonder at the world’s beauty and mystery. Holy the Firm (1977) similarly praises mountains, spiders, moths, while turning in horror to a child’s burns in a plane crash, trying to make sense of the senseless accidents that befall us. The grappling reaches its fullness in For the Time Being, where Dillard’s concern with natural and moral evil across time and space—tsunamis and genocides, plagues and human sacrifice—leads her to conclude that the suffering of our era is by no means unique, but every human life is, every individual infinitely precious. Dillard offers an example of what it means to look at our vulnerability dead on, to grapple with its meaning. To dwell only on the beauty, her books suggest, is to engage in what others have called spiritual or aesthetic bypassing, a state of denial that can harm not just us but the world around us. To dwell only on the suffering is to miss the gift held out by the abundance and to spiral into despair.

Dillard approaches the tensions of “grace tangled in a rapture with violence” from both religious and scientific angles, looking into the quirkier corners of the Christian tradition as well as Hasidic Judaism, Buddhism, and quantum physics. She notes that one stance is to attribute everything that is to the will of God, the Creator, the universe itself, advising radical acceptance. I have friends who find this radical acceptance comforting, whether they name it God’s Sovereignty or cosmic chaos, but something in me still rises up against the losses. I can accept neither that my friend’s long-haul COVID is divinely willed, nor that I should simply shrug my shoulders at the vicissitudes of a random universe. Suffering ought not be, I sense somewhere deep down—both the suffering that seems to rise at random and the suffering we humans cause each other.

So I like it when Dillard rails against the God whom she assumes to be. In Holy the Firm, she calls him a “brute and a traitor.” In For the Time Being she quotes the poet Nelly Sachs: “Who is like you, O Lord, among the silent, / remaining silent through the suffering of His children?” Her critique extends beyond a theistic frame: “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me,” she writes in Pilgrim. “The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die.”

The unsparing honesty of these natural and theological observations lead Dillard to a striking suggestion: in order to make space for the cosmos, the Creator withdrew, thereby allowing suffering to exist. She cobbles together this theory with insights from Simone Weil, Isaac Luria, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Motivated by love, this God tied one hand behind his back, not just to give us our free choice but to give us our existence. The Hebrew word for this divine self-contraction is zimzum (or tsimtsum). The result is a world in which suffering runs rampant, not because God chooses at any given moment to intervene or not, but because the very possibility of the world entails God’s self-limitation and thus the presence of pain.

This God, then, asks us to join in the project of redemption: tikkun olam in Hebrew, repairing the world. In the Christian tradition, this means acting as Christ’s hands and feet. God needs us, Dillard writes: “kenotically or not, he places himself in our hands.” In a naturalist’s language, suffering and death is the inescapable price of life, but the world’s goodness is within our power to tend and grow.

How does healing unfurl in our time, or any time? In this view, it does so in our daily actions of repair: in the meals we leave on neighbors’ steps, the work we do to dismantle patriarchal white supremacy, the efforts we join to address the climate crisis, the money we contribute to mutual aid. It unfurls as we wear the masks we’re so tired of wearing and seek out each other’s eyes across the distance. It unfurls in insistence on global vaccine equity, healthcare access, just economic rebuilding. It unfurls as we work to be sure that the next time a global disaster strikes, it strikes us more fairly, as much as we hate to envision such future sorrows.

Is this vision of the world enough? Does it answer our agony? I don’t know. What I know is that to heal is to look with courage at the shared and unshared pain we’ve undergone and to try to make some sense of it. What I know is that the sense we make, if it is to be sense at all, must stretch us toward a healing that is not just individual but communal, not just national but global, because it is too late in the day to pretend we are not each other’s neighbors. The pandemic has shown us the stakes of our lives—that we live, without exception, in vulnerability, toward death, and that we live this way together.

The past year has underlined Dillard’s insight that death is the price of love and pain an inescapable part of human life. This is a sentimental platitude until you’ve experienced its truth, and then it lodges at the lowest point of your lungs, accompanying every breath. But this is redemption: when we see and name and feel our sorrow, when we open ourselves to the sorrow around us, we begin to see the urgency of easing the suffering that can be helped. We make of our losses a lesson that repairs the world.

And then, in the beauty that rises up from forests and creeks and human connection, beauty to which Dillard just as insistently draws our attention, we find the breath to go on. I think of my own children’s capacity for cruelty to each other but also tenderness, of the mornings I’ve peeked into my daughter’s bedroom to find them cuddled together after some midnight scare, their eyelids translucent in the sun’s rising glow, their small chests rising in shared time. I think of the volunteers across North America who have sewn thousands of masks as part of the Auntie Sewing Squad, mailing them to First Nations, migrant farmworkers, and other communities at risk. I think of the senator who gently chided me once for hedging the hope I’d expressed in a conversation about his decades of work for nuclear disarmament: “Hope,” he said, “is one of the most radical things there is.”

I think of the peony stalks pushing up through the soil after a forty-below winter, of the chickadees’ passion for the seeds we offer them on outstretched palms. I think of the look on the face of a family member receiving a single discharged COVID patient at the hospital door, the tears pooling above the lower lashes, the catch in the voice. I multiply that by all the patients currently in hospital, in all their singularity, importance, complexity, and love.

The scope of grief is unimaginable. So is the scope of joy. Our first task is to pay attention. But Dillard reminds us it doesn’t end there: our work is also to try to tip the balance.