Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Every once in a while, Anonymous pops up on social media being feted for publicizing some list or other of dirty deeds and ghastly associations which they’ve uncovered on a server somewhere. The last one I saw claimed to report members of law enforcement who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. The general consensus when these unveilings circulate is one of celebration. People seem delighted that this faceless entity (if it can even be called an entity, disorganized as it is) has the power to drag bigotry out into the light where it can be properly brought to shame. As for me, I’m skeptical.

Not too long ago, I happened to catch part of a documentary about Anne Braden on KET. Anne and her husband landed themselves in a bit of hot water back in the 50s when, on behalf of a black family called the Wades, they bought a house in a Shively, a white neighborhood in Louisville, KY. The Wades had been stonewalled in their attempts to purchase a suburban home on their own. As you might imagine, things got hot and were pretty quick about it.

Carl and Anne Braden

Someone(s) burned cross in the front yard either the night the Wades moved in or some night shortly thereafter. Before long, someone actually bombed the house, put dynamite right under the window of the room where the Wade’s young daughter slept. God’s mercy, the family was out at the time and nobody was hurt.

What brings this to mind when I think of Anonymous sifting the ether to expose Klan affiliations is the obvious issue of racism, but also this. The 50s weren’t just a time of racial upheaval, this was also the McCarthy Era. Communists were lurking inside ordinary-looking Americans like lit dynamite ready to explode and rip apart the fabric of our society. The Braden family were witch-hunted as such. Anne’s husband Carl was tried and jailed for sedition for buying a house that persons unknown tried to blow up because of the skin tone of the inhabitants. There was a right and a wrong way to think and the halls of power were at work to get everyone thinking in line.

One might think that their mutual opposition to racial animus puts the likes of Anne Braden on the same side as those whomevers in Anonymous, but this couldn’t be further from true. The Red Scare was driven by an institutional fear of ideas that thrived on the clamor of people accusing each other. When you look at 50s as a time when the relatively secret wheels of government power churned in an effort to make mincemeat of scary thoughts, it seems plain to me that Joseph McCarthy’s legacy runs right to Anonymous via a straight, unbroken line.

On the subject of Klan affiliation, Anonymous opposes what I oppose. But, they are not my ally. Their chosen methods make them a foe of another stripe. When power is exercised behind the blank slate of anonymity, that has all the totalitarian trappings of a police state. By delving into citizens’ private lives and policing privately-held beliefs, dredging up some muck to be brought to shame and, I’m sure they hope, retribution, these digital thought police are a disgrace to liberty (and this is not even getting into the fact that just posting a found database with no context or actual reportage shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity that makes a gossip and a mockery of the standard of press a free society requires). But, Anonymous gets away with it because they have cherry-picked an easy ideology to attack. They exploit our cultural blind spots to make alarming power plays.

Consider the Nazis. Nobody would say now that hunting down Jews and their sympathizers was a noble thing, but within the bubble of Nazi Germany, it was the height of national pride to do so. I mean, they threw some pretty damn extravagant parades to celebrate some pretty damned egregious acts. Point being, it’s hard to see your gross totalitarianism when everyone agrees with you. And to act so from a place of hiding is beyond bad, it’s frightening.

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Let’s take a full stop here. Racism is a moral wrong. I personally anchor this thinking in the belief that the same God made us all and that gives us a terrific depth of dignity not to be mocked. I do not in any way believe that we as people should leave racist ideas unchallenged, especially in places of authority like the justice system. I do in every way believe that we as people should listen to our neighbors when they’re hurting and angry and join with them in seeking reconciliation. I shy away from using the word justice here because that term is so fraught and so righteous that I pale to think of human attempts to exert it. Let justice roll, but don’t ask me to roll it. I’m unqualified. I like the idea of reconciliation better because it implies a mutual work on all sides. But! I believe this mutual work should start in the camp that’s hurting least, because the camp that’s hurting most needs people to listen and care.

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Back to faceless hackers. You might say that ordinary people need the protection of anonymity to stand up to tyranny, and that may seem true. But, can individual acts of tyranny actually resolve institutional acts of tyranny? Put another way, if the people succeed in changing the balance of power in their favor, will they then give up their own tyrannical power or will they double down to ensure that the world stays as they like it? I’m not a trained historian, but I know enough about my own human nature to bet on power preserving power, not virtue.

What it comes down to is this: privacy is threatening. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? These days, we all do. Our always-on, always-wired-in world has given us a vision for much more darkness than we could have ever imagined even 20 years ago. Not only has the Internet revved the news cycle up to redline levels of horrors per minute, but it has given people a space to air out the darkest corners of their hearts and minds. Complete depravity is but a comments section away. Seeing the havoc in the human heart on full display shouldn’t necessarily be surprising—especially for those like me who take something like the Sermon on the Mount at face value—but it is certainly bracing. I understand the impulse to stamp out the flames. Privacy is threatening.

So, we need to have courage. We need to have the secure conviction that resists fear. To begin with, we need known people working to know each other. We need to have compassion and persuasion in our arsenal. About that word. Arsenal used to simply indicate a wharf, a place to dock and repair boats. It literally means a house for craft or skill. These days, though, we use the word indicating a place to make and stockpile weapons. This seems to illustrate our tendency to weaponize all craft, to make our human arts into instruments of power and victory. I imagine this drift in meaning might have come as ships became more instrumental in conquesting war, fighting abroad, and the industry of shipbuilding came under the claim of warmakers. Maybe it’s that we can’t travel without fighting because we find contrary cultures so threatening. In any event, it’s a shame that we feel the impulse to weaponize every tool we have for handling injustice and disagreement.

I propose we de-escalate a bit. When it comes to handling distasteful and even horrific ideas, let’s make our arsenal back into a house of craft. Not the craft of war, but the craft of peaceableness. I’m borrowing that word from a hero of mine, Wendell Berry, because I like it so much. It doesn’t presume that the success of peace is guaranteed or even always possible, but it it puts the weight on us to make peace an option. As scary as that is in the face of the horrors of the human heart, it’s pretty sound advice. If two parties are armed for war, war it will be. Inevitability. If one party is willing for peace, there is actual possibility. When it comes to opposing racism, we must resist the pull of war in our gut. War we have. Making peace, the art of reconciliation, is a much more complex path. It is choosing vulnerability while insisting on dignity. It is a high calling and it is risky, but it is good. And it takes far more courage than hiding behind spoofed IP addresses, proxy servers, and nameless names.

A Quick One On Hope

A Quick One On Hope

I believe that in order for a society to flourish, there has to be an unshakable trust that anyone can be reached and turned aside from violence. Even if this turning aside does not always actually happen—and surely it hasn’t, and surely it won’t—the possibility that it could must live among us for us to be sane in the root sense of being healthy. This is about believing that anyone can be redeemed, but I don’t mean redeemed to Western, progressive, liberal consumerism. I mean redeemed to the far less debatable truth that people are important and shouldn’t be killed by other people.

What happens if we don’t believe this particular redemption is possible? First, we become suspicious. People become potential threats. This starts out in the abstract, but it does not stay so removed. We become suspicious of communities and groups that unknowable by their very remove and so are obviously different from us in some way (geographically, ethnically, religiously, culturally). This is the root of our assent to any manner of foreign war. fishy-friendsBut, suspicion follows us home. We begin to distrust people in our own cities and towns because they, too, look different or live in different circumstances. And here’s the problem: once one barrier to our belief that people can be redeemed goes up, once we start being suspicious of people we don’t actually know just because they’re other than us, there is no real place to re-draw a circle of trust. We stop risking relationship. Instead, there is a slow creep of us keeping our guard up until even neighborly relationship becomes difficult. Look at homes going up for sale in a rich neighborhood if a black family moves in. Look at the distance people will keep if someone on the block keeps their house or yard in disarray or keeps odd hours doing odd things. Such behavior is not rooted in the belief that you can forge a strong enough relationship with any kind of person that will bind you together in mutual thriving and even affection. Such behavior is rooted in the belief that anyone could be out to get you.

Another troubling thing. As the list of people we trust with our own care dwindles, the list of things we fear balloons. Now, we no longer fear just murder, but theft, home invasion, rape, riot, or someone not returning the rake they borrowed. We no longer just fear that someone here from a foreign land might be building bombs and laying them out in the streets, we fear anyone we meet for an exhausting list of possible threats they might pose. It’s a crazy way to live.

I know there are awful things in the world and people are the ones doing them. I’m not saying we should be naive and completely regardless of our safety. I am saying, though, that there’s a hard thing here that must be embraced. Relationship is the only hope for defusing some of the people that would otherwise harm us. Certainly, strict separation from the ‘others’ either by rejecting them from our vicinity completely or cordoning them off into ghettos surely isn’t going to prevent anything. In fact, such separation will surely only intensify any animosity some may already feel, and might even sow fresh animosity where none was before. Imagine, though, bringing people near and seeing to their flourishing, not just economically buy relationally as well. Of course, this is an individual act, not a ‘societal’ one. This kind of hopeful activity wold necessarily be personal, the act of caring for those around us and possibly going a little beyond what’s easy and comfortable in order to care for just a few more. That is the way to urge someone away from violence, to build a relationship that would not easily be violated. It is the only way. It cannot be legislated as a big solution to a big problem, it can only be lived out on a scale that seems almost microscopic in our supposedly ‘global’ world. We can remember, though, that it takes good microbes in the dirt to grow a crop. We may still get burned, perhaps even literally, but we as a people would still be able to hope for better and not resign ourselves to worse.

*     *     *

These thoughts were originally sparked by the issue of our country, our neighborhoods and cities providing harbor for people fleeing war-ravaged places, hence the immediate issue of violence. What is violence, though, but the ultimate in a long list of ways we can reduce other people? I think you can take our fear of violence and how we react to those whom we fear will bring it and pretty easily translate those fears into understanding how we reduce people to ‘enemies’ just because we disagree with them politically. That is to say, I don’t think fearful people on the so-called ‘right’ are the only people who are letting suspicion and disdain metastasize among us. We all have to fight our inherent xenophobia both foreign and domestic, even people on the so-called ‘left’ who seem to be talking about Trump supporters in about the same apocalyptic terms a Trump supporter might talk about a Syrian. Just something to think about.

Pediatric Cancer, Job, and Euthanasia

Pediatric Cancer, Job, and Euthanasia

Humans of New York recently finished a series posting photos and stories from the Pediatrics Department of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and it has been harrowing. Stories of children suffering through multiple rounds of cancer and treatment, of their parents’ exhausted anguish, of the doctors’ gambit of staying objective enough to do their job and empathetic enough to stay human. You can see the full spectrum of pain radiate out from a disease and through a whole community surrounding each patient. In trademark HoNY style, each vignette is poignant and at least a little hopeful, but the overall impact is just brutal.

The endurance instinct
These stories at first bring to mind Job cursing the day he was born after all his wealth was stolen, all his children killed in a storm, and his body left festering with boils. ‘May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, “A boy is conceived!” That day—may it turn to darkness; May God above forsake it; may no light shine on it…for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me to hide trouble from my eyes.’ Job echoes the rather dour proposition in Ecclesiastes that the dead are happier than the living, but those who had never been born are the happiest of all. This world is so wretched with pain that it’s better to depart it and better yet to never enter it. But, these dark words seem so jarring and dischordant juxtaposed with the children at the heart of the hope-tinged stories HoNY filed, byline: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Peds Dept.

The truth is, not that long ago, many if not most of these children actually would have died very young, probably at their first bout with cancer, and so would have been spared much of their suffering. Were it not for medical intervention (itself a form of pain, as these stories attest), much agony would not have been. But, no! Isn’t there a gut-level instinct in us that says children shouldn’t be left to die? Of course there is and this instinct to protect our vulnerable is beautiful and good and true. We rightly resist the thought of new life ending at its beginning. HoNY very clearly documented the extraordinary lengths to which we are willing to extend suffering all for the sake of hope, not just for survival, but for glimmers of beauty deep in the dark valleys.

And yet, there’s a totally different story being told about the end of life. Something rather worrisome is bubbling to the surface in the culture surrounding disease and death among our elderly. 20 years after Dr. Jack Kevorkian first started the conversation, euthanasia is edging towards the mainstream, popping up as plot points in books, TV, and movies while also being boosted by crescendoing advocacy groups. This is not a movement about accepting the natural course of life. This is a movement about abruptly ending life before it can take its natural course. I find it troubling. What could be at the root of this dichotomy between how we approach suffering in our young and in our old?

Perhaps we see potential in a child, a long life stretching before them that we don’t see for an octogenarian. But, is the value of life measured only in its length? This thinking would run our days through a cold wringer of the actuary. There is something intrinsically important about a life that does not diminish based on how much living left to be done. We can begin to understand this when we think in terms not of the length of life, but of the capacity of life.

Back on the pediatric ward, one mother told a particular story that stood out. Her son, deep in a night made sleepless by the horrible bodily side effects of chemotherapy, hugged her tight and told her how happy he was. Happy because of the love he felt in his heart for this woman pouring herself out for him. How truly amazing that something exists in our world that can lift the spirit of someone who by all logic should utterly despair. Yet such deep, sacrificial love would simply not exist without the pain that conceived it, incubated it, matured it. This is a paradox: that our lives can be so fragile and prone to death and yet so indefatigable in our ability to generate beauty. And yet, like the best paradoxes, it’s true.

Dying in America
It’s no secret that growing old in the west can be a very lonely proposition. These days, we largely shut our old up and away from view in care facilities and hospital wards. Large parts of our waning years pass behind closed doors, cut off from community, even the community of family. Part of this is made possible by the atomization of our society. There are too many tributary factors in this trend to list, but here are a couple.

One, the intense efforts on behalf of governments and corporations to globalize the economy which, in the spirit of the ‘free’ market, makes it easy to move capital around on the face of the world, which inevitably leads to people moving from place to place chasing jobs. The turnover rate in our workplaces is matched by the turnover rate in our neighborhoods, which weakens the bonds we form with one another. Even the seeds from the family tree scatter further and faster than before.

Two, the inward-facing turn our entertainment has taken as prevalent electricity and technology make of the living room a kingdom, an seductive lure to keep us indoors and further weaken the bonds that might form between a young family and an elderly neighbor. Where the demands of our economy can spread families far and wide, the pleasures of entertainment can starve out any neighborliness that might grow up to compensate. I feel this with a particular pang as several elderly neighbors of mine have died in recent months and I wish I’d known them better.

We are offered digital communication tools to supposedly mitigate the effects of the physical distances we put between us while chasing a comfortable, technologically rich life, but I believe we will eventually feel the tepidity of such cheap stand-ins for real relationship. Though sadly perhaps not until we are old and cloistered away in a home with only a screen.

Scattering ourselves far and wide and often while retreating into our screen-illuminated dens has given us a chopped-up look at life. We no longer see the beginning and end of life all around us, and especially with death, this absence has cultivated a fertile breeding ground for fear. We no longer have many clear pictures of loved ones facing death with courage and we have lost our stomach for pain. We avoid it at all costs by severing ties with the hurting and numbing our own pain by any means necessary. This leaves us woefully unprepared when the pain becomes too acute to ignore, too close to send away. The rise of a euthanasia culture speaks to this loss in our cultural imagination. It also gives us the false impression that death is in our control and that we can somehow diminish our suffering by opting out of it at our leisure.

The curable disease
The old have so much wisdom to impart to us and any of their wisdom gained through suffering is deeply needed in our time. As a young man, this may read like I’m advocating for others to suffer in pursuit of some sort of masochistic cultural nobility. I’m not. I’m advocating for us to enter into the suffering of others to make it bearable. Livable. If we have abandoned our elders to the unendurable prospect of painful, lonely decline, then let’s not offer them a syringe, let’s offer them presence. Life is too precious to cut short at any stage. We think we are avoiding unnecessary suffering, but we’re not. The unnecessary suffering has already occurred. Euthanasia isn’t the cure to the pain of dying, it is the curable symptom of the fear of dying alone.

There is hope to the very end of every life, if not for painlessness or for more time, then for wisdom and love that reaches unimaginable depths precisely because it is so hard to do in the midst of pain. I’m saying that we should have just as much hope in our sick elderly as we do in our sick young. Each is precious, each draws out beauty that cannot even be named because it is so deeply hidden and only revealed in suffering. Life isn’t measured by its utility, it’s measured by its capacity.

Marriage Advice From House, M.D.

Marriage Advice From House, M.D.

On a recent episode of House, M.D. (and by recent episode, I mean an episode from October 2010 that I happened to be watching recently), a patient’s clearly naive husband went to House for marriage advice of all things. His wife had kept hidden from him a huge underlying mental illness and he didn’t know what to do next. Alas, House never was one for patients, much less their husbands and the good doctor was blunt and brief. Their initial exchange, though, turned out to have remarkably sound marriage advice.

‘This is not who I married.’
‘Of course she is, you just didn’t know it.’

To the point as always, House pokes his giant, cane-shaped pin into the bubble that we can somehow know someone through and through before we marry them and so expect no big surprises til death do us part. Marriage is a big change filled with big changes. Buying homes together, planning a family together, navigating the ups and downs of those plans going in unexpected directions, starting new jobs and leaving old jobs all the while having someone watching you handle the transition very up close and personal. Point being that life will draw our character out and not all of it will be a monument to our hardiness and moral fortitude.

But, you’re sill married.

Just because you don’t (and can’t) know everything about someone before you marry them doesn’t make it ok to suddenly throw the future of the marriage into question when something you don’t like surfaces. The problem isn’t that our spouse is flawed, the problem is that we thought we could get away marrying only the parts of someone that we like. For better or worse, you have to marry a whole person with some mysterious depths. There may be some sea monsters down there, but it’s possible to love someone in such a way that the muck that life may dredge from the deep isn’t a time to ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about the future, but instead ask ‘how’?

The fruit of working through hardship in marriage rather than running from it is self-evident in any old married couple if we’ll look for it. Survive enough together and these 50- and 60-year old marriages take on this unconquerable, bulletproof patina (which is good, because circumstances surely don’t get any easier as a couple ages and faces the decline of their health together). Far better, then, to figure out how to move forward rather than to fret over whether to move forward. Because that is, indeed, the person you married. You just didn’t know it.

A Light Switch

Over the past few months, I have seen tragedy visited upon some people I love. Losses unfolding, wholly unwilling, with a suddenness and a sequence that is painful even to know of, much less to live and bear. Sometimes, it seems grief arrives and compounds with what almost seems like a discernible pattern, one that feels nearly punitive or at least intimate in its meanness. Yet, this suspicion of a cruelty set loose in the world is met with almost appalled unbelief because we can’t imagine any sort of God who would lend their power to or withhold it from such hurt. And so pain becomes infuriating. We want an end almost as badly as we want an explanation.

Here, I am tempted to take a typically dour narrative, to say that grief is faithful to press us down into our limits and so confound the parts of us so comfortable with feeling in control, entitled to pleasure and reward. Some might call this a puritanical air, bleak and pitiless. There is, I think, a more helpful purity, though. Instead of a steady, crushing hand, what if we looked at our pain as a light switch, and not one that plunges us into temporary darkness, but one that douses us in that painful light as when someone flips on a lamp while we were still sleeping?

As the comfort of pleasant sleep resolved into a brightly lit room, we would see our world as it truly is, not as we dreamed it, nor as we dreamed our place in it. Pain is all too real and all too near. We are woefully uninsulated despite our best efforts. We may be able to put off some loss of comfort if we are careful with our money (though tell that to so many homeowners in 2008) or if we make all the right choices (though tell that the the magna cum laude graduate with $100k in debt and no way to use their law degree still wetly inked), but the real accosting pains—physical collapse, sudden rejection, death—are always pressing in, biding their time before they irrupt on our such-as-it-is-it’s-mine cultivated lives. In those dreadful moments, we are soaked in the plain light of truth: the most precious things are absolutely out of our control.

In trying to resolve the psychic dissonance of untimely pain, some people find themselves compelled to dismiss any idea of a transcendent God watching them as they bleed. The concept seems so contradictory as to be self nullifying and ridiculous. I say a fellow sufferer can hardly blame them. Hurt drives us into ourselves, or to continue the metaphor, hurt stands us up to face our self, wholly illuminated. There is no place in human logic where pain, especially pain upon pain with no chance to heal, can resolve into the picture of a compassionate God, to say nothing of a loving one. All the sense immanent to us demands the death of God. If we were looking outward at all, we were looking for a god like us, conforming within the extent of what we could understand (and by understanding, give assent). How harrowing to see nothing of the sort and to feel alone in a screaming solitude. And yet.

And yet, the same light by which hurt illuminates us also illuminates the world around us. If this were to reveal a God, it could not look like any god we expected. It would have to be a God able to hold at once a good compassion and our unremitting pain, not just as two like magnetic poles fighting to repel one another, but as a unity without division. It breaks the imagination. For it to be true, we would finally have to face a God who is godlike. Able to be true even as what we can only make sense of as contradiction, a self nullification.

This is the very image of transcendence, the indivisible necessity of a God worth the title. Of course, this is hideously uncomfortable because we suddenly see how far below such a logic our reason operates. Our pain reveals a terrible height. But, the light that engulfs us offers the opportunity to see not a god like us, but something so immense and mysterious we would have missed it, though it had been there all along. This, finally, is a God we could find exhilarating, truly invigorating to commune with. At the end of anger, indignation, and meaninglessness, I find that hurt leaves in me an appetite for this kind of God, one beyond all the immanent sorrow and dead-end logic.

The suddenness of deep pain reveals the great gulf between what we felt in our dream-like comfort and what we cannot ever unlearn about our precarious lives. Our reason can’t touch the bottom of this gap and, reaching in deep enough, we find that everything at hand becomes ultimately futile, an absurd blip we try to make as tolerable as we can. If, at the end of our logic, the chasm still yawns there in its absurdity, we have the opportunity not to reach in, but to step in. This is the leap of faith. This is the chance to discover that a God who makes no sense at all might be the best kind of God imaginable provided you can accept that his goodness and your hurt do not contradict though by all appearances a paradox. If suffering is to leave us with an absurdity, at least this is an absurdity incorporating the hope of goodness. At least this God makes of suffering a start, not a permanent end. Perhaps even a falling up.

Short Read: institutions and bigotry

This comes in response to a few essays I’ve read in the past couple of weeks.

If you can, with a straight face, talk about statewide corporate boycotts, high-profile cancellations, etc—all basically 21st century siege warfare—as legitimate tactics to oppose bigotry, if you can speak of using force to oppose beliefs you find distasteful, then perhaps the definition of the word ‘bigot’ has been lost. Or, perhaps literally everyone on earth is a bigot, but the word only sticks to beliefs and actions that are in the minority, or at least not your own. Either way, regardless of how righteous one may feel, using force in the marketplace and using propagandic labeling of to-you unsavory beliefs looks to me awfully akin to enacting legislation to hem in to-them unsavory beliefs. Self-righteousness blurs a lot of hostility.

Waging a culture war—which it still is, it doesn’t stop being so just because the side you’re on is winning—at an institutional level, be it that of the economy or of the government or even that of social media, is a fertile breeding ground for self-righteousness. Institutions can not be relational; they are by definition anonymizing, abstract fronts that conceal personal action behind the blank face of the institution. Relationships between actual people go a long way to defusing self-righteousness because only people can be so humble.

The most nauseous impulse I see on display is this push for conformity to a side. ‘You must assimilate into our camp wholesale if you agree with us at all, and our enemy is that camp and they can do nothing right.’ This attitude has been festering in our insanely litigious grievance culture for a long time. It puts a serious damper on our ability to disagree and stay friends by breeding, in either side, the fear of what might happen if we happen to be the one who’s out of step with the majority around us. Constantly vying with threat of social and economic violence is just no way for any of us to live, either as the aggressor or the harried.

Excerpt: the grace we are built to bear

While Our Man is stripped of the kind of hope he’d always known, the director, JC Chandor, never lets us escape beauty. His shots of the stillness, and expanse of the ocean, his gift of the silence of Our Man’s solitude—unspoiled by dramatic music or inner monologue—give even this disaster a resonant grandeur. The most affecting reminders of goodness come when Chandor shoots the raft from below, finding tiny fish and other sea creatures gathered in the sanctuary of Our Man’s raft. The images are electric, jolts of life in stark contrast to the endless austerity Our Man sees to the horizon. Even this ocean, harsh to a man, nurtures any life willing to depend on its provenance, built to receive it (which Our Man is not. His free will has lead him beyond the grace he was built to bear).

This excerpt is taken from All Must Be Lost or How to Live When Lost at Sea, a reflection on the 2013 film starring Robert Redford and a most unfortunate boat.