From an Instructor's Diary


AN interesting evening has it been. I had just settled down to an hour or two with Chaucer when my Cynical Sophomore dropped in with a theme called ‘Why Is God?’ and wished me to read it and talk with him. I laid aside my book and began the reading.

It was the usual cry of the groping, unfolding mind to infinite things — a cry that fears there is no answering voice and calls with a cynicism born of desperation. He proved — oh, quite logically — that we are all ‘conscious mechanisms of a Master Mechanic,’ born with unequal endowments and capabilities through no fault of our own, moulded in youth by circumstances beyond our control, and possessed of a very limited scope for conscious improvement. ‘A man can judge good and evil only as he knows good and evil. An individual’s point of view is beyond the control of that individual.’ Therefore a man cannot be free to live, to accomplish truly great things, because of an error in his judgment of true greatness, born in him and made a part of him through no wish or fault of his own. He is the puppet of his own mechanism, which in turn is the product of chance and circumstance.

Ergo, why is God?

While I read, he slouched in my battered other armchair, reserved for evening visitors, his nervous hands rumpling his hair, his restless eyes glancing at me keenly from time to time to see how I was taking it. About nineteen, I should say. A thoroughbred; a bundle of incipient intelligence and advanced emotion, head-shy and proud.

‘ Well,’ I said when I had finished the reading, ‘let’s consider your case as proven. What’s the answer?’

He looked at me defiantly.

’I don’t know. Do you?’

He reddened at his abruptness.

‘I’m sorry, sir, I —'

‘Accepting your premises, the answer seems quite obvious. Life is n’t worth living. Trouble is, no matter how we lay down the logic and law to ourselves, a sunny day or a good laugh comes along and throws out that answer. Do you believe life is worth living?’

’Yes — I guess so.’ Slowly, reluctantly.

‘Then you’ve missed a point somewhere, don’t you think? If you believe all this’ — pointing to the paper

— ‘and think that that is all there is to it, you could n’t think much of life, coidd you?’

‘No, sir, I suppose not. But—but

— what is the answer, then? What’s it all about — all this shouting about religion, and morals, and ideals, and — and — keeping clean, and ‘ — he flushed hotly — ‘trying not to do the things you feel sometimes like doing, and trying always to do the things you practically never feel like doing, and — and

— oh, everything? I —’

He made a helpless gesture with his nervous hands and sank deeper into his chair, silent.

I said nothing, but offered him a smoke and took one myself. There was silence while we both lighted our cigarettes and inhaled slowly and gratefully the first relieving puff of blue smoke, eyeing each other steadily the whole time.

After the second puff I answered, picking my words carefully.

The answer I don’t know. I have my answer, and it serves me well enough, but it won’t do you any good, and I’m not going to give it to you. You’ve got to dig yours out for yourself. Secondhand answers to such questions invariably wear out or are outgrown. You’ve got to get yours’ — I paused to put my ash in the tray — ‘in the same way I got mine; and you’re beginning to look for it.’

I tapped the paper.

‘ You don’t really put much stock in this for an answer, do you? It does n’t fit the facts, you see — the facts of life. You’ve left out entirely the joys, the dreams and aspirations that men of all kinds, good and bad, have. Dreams may not be facts, but the dreaming is. Hope is; though perhaps never the realization. You can’t be contented with this answer, can you?’ Again I tapped the paper.

He fidgeted in his seat. ‘No, I suppose not, but —'

‘Don’t let’s go beyond that “but” to-night. Take it slowly. Just check this answer as one of the things that fail to fill the requirements, and keep looking; and don’t worry overmuch about settling the matter this week.’

He looked at his watch and rose hastily, grinding out the fire of his cigarette in the ash tray on the chair arm.

‘I’ve got a chorus rehearsal in five minutes, sir. Got to be going.’

‘All right. Glad you came around. Drop in again when you have found something that sounds good, and we’ll thrash it out.’ I rose as he moved toward the door.

‘Yes, sir, I will. And — ‘ He hesitated. ‘About my mark?’

‘Oh!’ I looked at the paper blankly. How does one mark a groping for the realities with A, B, or C ? I sparred for time. ‘It will be all right; yes. A good paper.’

‘Thank you, sir. Good-night.’

He clattered down the stairs, the door slammed, and his whistle sounded in the street below.

I glanced through the paper again. The mechanics of the thing were bad. Spelling rather original in spots. Blast the mechanics! I put an A opposite his name in my red-tape book, and also a symbol of my invention that means ‘If he does n’t come back in two weeks, look him up for dinner.’

I turned again to my Chaucer; but he, dead and ‘nayled in his cheste’ long since, could not compete with the picture of the Cynical Sophomore, appareled in the bright colors of youth, beginning his pilgrimage to some doubtful, unknown shrine far down the years — and I closed the book.