Hazel Press

If I dare, in these few words, to ask you some direct and personal questions, it is because I address them as much to myself as to you. It is because I am still able to hope that a civil exchange of ideas can take place between two persons - that we have not yet reached the stage where we are all hermetically sealed, each one in the collective arrogance and despair of his own herd. If I seem to be in a hurry to take advantage of the situation that still exists, it is, frankly, because I sometimes feel it may not continue to exist much longer. In any case, I believe that we are still sufficiently "persons" to realize we have a common difficulty, and to try to solve it together. I write this, then, in the hope that we can still save ourselves from becoming numbers.

 

You can easily guess that in using the term "innocent bystander" I had to examine my conscience to see whether or not I was being facetious. I do not remember if I smiled when I first thought of it, but in any case I am no longer smiling. For I do not think the question of our innocence can be a matter for jesting, and I am no longer certain that it is honorable to stand by as the helpless witness of a cataclysm, with no other hope than to die innocently and by accident, as a non-participant.

 

But who are "we"? We are the intellectuals who have taken for granted that we could be "bystanders" and that our quality as detached observers could preserve our innocence and relieve us of responsibility. By intellectual, I do not mean clerk (though I might mean clerc). I do not mean bureaucrat. I do not mean politician. I do not mean technician. I do not mean anyone whose intelligence ministers to a machine for counting, classifying, and distributing other people: who hands out to this on a higher pay check and to that one a trip (presently) to the forced labor camp. I do not mean a policeman, or a propagandist. I still dare to use the word intellectual as if it had a meaning.

 

So here we stand, you and I, while "they" attend to their increasingly sinister affairs, and we observe: "Well, let others mind their own business and we will mind ours." Such an attitude soon leads to another, hardly innocent, in which we may find ourselves saying: "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." From this it is but one step to a doctrine even more timely and more consoling: "You can't break eggs without making an omelet." If you have already got that far there is no use in reading any more of this letter. This inspires me to ask my first dangerous question. "Although it seems to be impossible to do anything but stand and wait, is our waiting harmless, and is it innocent? Can we afford to remain inert? Can we afford to confuse helplessness with honesty? It is true that if one is helpless, honesty requires that he admit it. But if he is helpless through his own neglect, he can hardly permit himself to be complacent in an admission of helplessness that is not, at the same time, and admission of guilt."

 

You will answer: "Waiting is not inertia. To be quiet and bide one's time is to resist. Passive resistance is a form of action."

 

That is true when one is waiting for something, and knows for what he is waiting. That is true when one is resisting, and knows why, and to what end, he is resisting, and whom he must resist. Unless our waiting implies knowledge and action, we will find ourselves waiting for our own destruction and nothing more. A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice. Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?

 

Here we stand, in a state of diffuse irritation and doubt, while "they" fight one another for power over the whole world. It is our confusion that enables "them" to use us, and to pit us against one another, for their own purposes. Our guilt, our deep resentment, does nothing to preserve us from a shameful fate. On the contrary, our resentment is what fits us most perfectly to be "their" instruments. How can we claim that our inertia is innocent? It is the source of our guilt.

 

Is non-participation possible? Can complicity be avoided? You in your country and I in mine - you in your circle and I in my monastery: does the fact that we hate and resent tyranny and try to dissociate ourselves from it suffice to keep us innocent?

 

First, let us assume that we are clear who "they" are. When I speak of "them," you will understand that I mean those special ones who seek power over "all the others," and who use us as instruments to gain power over the others. Thus there are three groups I am thinking of: "they," "we" and "the others." We, the intellectuals, stand in the middle, and we must not forget that, in the end, everything depends on us.

 

It is therefore supremely important for us not to yield to despair, abandon ourselves to the "inevitable." And it is equally important for us not to set ourselves too exclusively apart from "the others" who depend on us, and upon whom we ourselves also depend.

 

As for the powerful ones, it is our job to recognizer them even without their police, even before the establishment of their machinery. We must identify them wherever "they" may appear, even though they may rise up in the midst of ourselves, or among "the others." We must be able to recognize "them" by what they are and not rest satisfied with what is said about them, by others or by themselves or above all by one of us! It is already rare for an intellectual to retain his sense of judgment when "they" change their masks and reshuffle their labels and put on different badges. Yet "they" are always "they." It is to their obvious interest to bribe us to give them a new name, a false identity, especially since, in doing so, we convince ourselves that we have made a brilliant discovery. We must not let our vanity provide "them" with false passports.

 

Let us assume, at this point, that we are not interested in their money, or their official benevolence, or their protection, or the cushy state jobs which they can guarantee us, if we will place our resentment at their service. Needless to say, I have assumed too much. We are interested, aren't we? Let's not use that nasty word "prostitution" though. The situation is already depressing enough without self-disparagement?

 

In any case, as we "wait" we must make sure they do not, once again, convince us that it is "they" we have been waiting for.

 

A second thought. Before we try to decide what we are waiting for, let us make sure whether or not we are the innocent intellectual who rushes frantically into collaboration with "them," lends himself to every defilement, certain that he is being prepared for destruction, and, in the end, asking only to be defiled as often and as sordidly as possible before the final annihilation takes place.

 

It is this that I fear for both of us: the frantic insistence on getting rid even of our innocence, as if any other guilt would be more bearable, in such a world, than the guilt of being innocent.

 

When all this has been said, and pondered by us both, I think you would take it as bad manners for me to offer an easy solution. And I am hardly mad enough to try it. I love you enough (the word "love" slipped out by mistake) to spare your legitimate pride. It is not for me to provide the same kind of clear, sweeping program of action which is "their" great temptation and their delusion. The very difficulty of our position comes from the fact that every definite program is now a deception, every precise plan is a trap, every easy solution is intellectual suicide. And that is why we are caught on the horns of a dilemma: whether we "act" or not we are likely to be destroyed. There is a certain innocence in not having a solution. There is a certain innocence in a kind of despair: but only if in despair we find salvation. I mean, despair of this world and what is in it. Despair of men and of their plans, in order to hope for the impossible answer that lies beyond our earthly contradictions, and yet can burst into our world and solve them if only there are some who hope in spite of despair.

 

The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth. Consequently our task is to dissociate ourselves from all who have theories which promise clear-cut and infallible solutions, and to mistrust all such theories, not in a spirit of negativism and defeat, but rather trusting life itself, and nature, and if you will permit me, God above all. For since man has decided to occupy the place of God he has shown himself to be by far the blindest cruelest, and pettiest and most ridiculous of all the false gods. We can call ourselves innocent only if we refuse to forget this, and if we also do everything we can to make others realize it.

 

To illustrate what I mean, I will remind you of an innocent and ancient story, of a king and his new clothes.

 

You know it, of course. It has been referred to somewhere in psychoanalytical literature. Tailors deceived a king, telling [him] they would weave him a wonderful suit which would be invisible to any but good men. They went through all the motions of fitting him out in the invisible suit, and the king, as well as all his courtiers claimed to "see" and to admire the thing. In the end, the naked king paraded out into the street where all the people were gathered to admire his suit of clothes, and all did admire it until a child dared to point out that the king was naked.

 

You will perhaps find that my thought has taken on a sentimental tinge. But since the times have become what they have become, I dare to blurt this out. Have you and I forgotten that our vocation, as innocent bystanders - and the very condition of our terrible innocence-is to do what the child did, and keep on saying the king is naked, at the cost of being condemned criminals? Remember, the child in the tale was the only innocent one: and because of his innocence, the fault of the others was kept from being criminal, and was nothing worse than foolishness. If the child had not been there, they would all have been madmen, or criminals. It was the child's cry that saved them.

'Letter to an Innocent Bystander' by Thomas Merton, 1961