Scott Black Johnston: Hello, Cruel World

One afternoon this past summer, I walked into the living room to find my 15-year-old in tears. Izzy was holding a historical novel she had been reading all day."What's up?" I asked.

She explained that the novel took place during the reign of Henry VIII. The two main characters were a young man and a young woman who had endured some pretty hard knocks in 16th-century England. Toward the end of the story, though, things were looking up. They were in love.

Then the final chapter of the book pulled the rug out from under its hopeful readers. The young man was sent to the Tower of London and killed.

With damp eyes, Izzy protested: "Why would an author do something like this? I want to throw this book in the garbage." Looking at her, I paused. Then I headed down a path all parents have to travel: "Sometimes, honey, that's the way the world is. Sometimes it's just plain cruel."


The great philosopher Socrates is credited with saying (and I paraphrase here): "What trips us up most in life is the picture in our head of how things are supposed to be."

Mostly, I think Socrates is right. If we approach life as if it were a fairy tale in which we are the triumphant heroes, we are going to be sadly, painfully disappointed. Rose-colored glasses will mess you up. But at the same time, I also suspect that Izzy's horror at the ending of her book is a sign of moral character.

Does facing reality require that we surrender our visions for a better world, a more just society or a less-violent planet?

Iris Murdoch

Sure, having a picture of "how things are supposed to be" can break your heart. (Regularly!) But it also gives us the courage to act, to change and to make a difference.

The great Irish philosopher Iris Murdoch puts our almost-mystical challenge best: "We can only act in the world we see."

From Scott's blog, Sharp About Your Prayers