I’m reading The Fountainhead right now, and the following passage struck me. It is the story of the “ideal” man, architect Howard Roark, against the world. Roark is strong, self-controlled, and lives entirely for himself–on his own terms. In this scene, he confronts an old acquaintance, Peter Keating, once considered a great architect by the “world,” but Keating is depicted as merely the shadow of a man, a man who lives entirely for the approval of others, and loses himself along the way. Keating has come to Roark, begging for assistance. It’s a pathetic and moving confrontation.
Anyway, on to the excerpt.
When Keating had gone, Roark leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He was sick with pity.
He had never felt this before–not when Henry Cameron collapsed in the office at his feet, not when he saw Steven Mallory sobbing on a bed before him. Those moments had been clean. But this was pity–this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed. There was shame in this feeling–his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment upon a man, that he should know an emotion which contained no shred of respect.
This is pity, he thought, and then he lifted his head in wonder. He thought that there must be something terribly wrong with a world in which this monstrous feeling is called a virtue.
I got to thinking. What does it mean for a man to be without worth or hope, not to be redeemed? Is there such a thing? And if pity is truly the act of pronouncing such judgment upon a man, can anyone make that judgment but God? Isn’t pity the most debasing of all human emotions, because, as Roark himself reflects, it is an emotion without even a modicum of respect?
It seems that when we pity someone, we abuse them and us. We abuse them, because we pronounce them worthless. Without that pronouncement, we might regard them with empathy, with apathy, even with antipathy–but at least we leave their basic dignity in tact. But the moment we view them with pity is the moment we decide they have lost the second greatest gift, next to life itself: the power to direct that life, which is the gift that makes us uniquely human. In our mind, they have become a shell of a human being, without power to act, but only to be acted upon, a slave, devoid of liberty or agency.
And we abuse ourselves, because we artificially exalt ourselves as gods. It is only for God to pity, for only He can judge. And the truth, of course, is that we are all worthless, unprofitable servants, falling short of the infinite potential installed in each of us by virtue of our humanity. To be human is to be divine. And because we are not divine, no, not one of us, we deserve nothing but God’s pity, relying solely on His grace to make us what we should be. But how can God love us and pity us at the same time? What is it that He loves?
It’s a great paradox. We are agents endowed with liberty and yet in bondage every day. We are divine and yet fallen, hopelessly lost and incomplete. Perhaps it is our divinity, our individuality, that God so cherishes in us, the spark of potential, of possibility untapped. He alone can tap it–and yet it is in our hands to choose to let Him. Perhaps it is that act of willful submission, the rarest and truest form of individual expression, that makes us creatures not wretched and vile, but worthy of our own humanity.