My students and I just finished studying King Lear and now we’re starting the last novel they’ll ever read in high school: Blindness by Jose Saramago. The novel’s plot is about what happens when most of the world goes blind.
I love teaching novels like this. We get to talk about all the Big Questions, and on Friday, we talked about morality. Before discussing moral relativism, moral objectivism, and contractarianism, I asked questions like, “Is morality something we create, or something we discover?” and “Who decides what is right and wrong?”
I don’t get to talk about most of these things in my real life, and I’ve often been accused of taking a regular dinner conversation and turning it into a podcast of On Being. But I think about these things all. the. time.
The kids were ready to talk about these questions because of King Lear’s ending. Spoiler alert: almost everyone dies. Goneril and Regan — who profess their daughterly love to their father and then betray him — both die. Edmund dies. Lear dies. And Cordelia — the daughter who was honest and loving and good… even she dies.
Some of my students were up in arms. Cordelia dies? Shouldn’t she live? Shouldn’t Lear live? Shouldn’t the story end happily ever after? Shouldn’t something be redeemed or righted?
The part that is so jarring about the end of King Lear is the same thing that is so jarring about real life: endings aren’t always fair. And when they aren’t, it seems like some contract has been violated… that the rules of nature have been upended. Usually, we made up that contract… we made up the rules. Nothing actually exists that says our ending isn’t ‘fair’… except for the misconception that good deeds mean exemption from tragic circumstances. Cordelia was good. Her ending was still unfair.
When Jeff got sick, I wanted to blame God. And sometimes, I still do. But he never promised life would be fair. And sometimes, if I can force myself to do it, I remember the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross… that nothing that happens to us is bad, and all of it is an opportunity to grow. Rather than asking, “Why?”, I should be asking, “What am I supposed to be learning?”
One question is from the place of a victim, and the other is from the place of a student. Of course, those asking what we’re supposed to be learning have almost always been in a position that forces us to ask why.
Life isn’t fair. Even morality sometimes doesn’t seem fair. Laws, rules… sometimes they don’t seem fair, and even fly in the face of the laws and rules of our faiths.
But what can be fair and meaningful is how we respond in a world that can seem chaotic and unfair and unjust. It redeems the irredeemable. And it provides some semblance of hope that some things will be more fair for others. And hope and redemption are on the short list of what the world most needs.