I was driving back from doing the grocery shopping today, and happened to hear the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique. What a sad, emotionally draining piece of music, with its evocation of the “dying of the light” at the end. Whenever I hear it, I remember the only time I ever heard it played live, in August 1974 in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center.
The day before the concert, Richard Nixon had made his final television speech live to the American people, saying that he was going to resign from the presidency. The evening of the concert, he signed his letter of resignation and boarded the Presidential helicopter as I sat in the concert hall, listening to this powerful music. I knew what was happening at the White House — and couldn’t help thinking of Nixon and his emotions on that evening. I was not a fan of his, but believed that I felt the depth of his personal “dying of the light” a few blocks away. The magnitude of the catastrophe he had brought on himself must have sunk in as he signed that letter and walked out of the White House with his wife, to never return.
Triumph or catastrophe?
When David Frost interviewed Nixon some years later, in 1977, he met a man intent on defending his record as president. The terms of the interviews did not let Frost fully probe into what happened in the Watergate fiasco but, finally, Frost was able to get Nixon to appear to have regrets over his actions. “Nixon admitted that he had ‘let down the country’ and that ‘I brought myself down. I gave them a sword and they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.'” [from Wikipedia] So, was my empathy on the night of Nixon’s resignation mistaken? Was Nixon so convinced of his own ‘righteousness’ that he actually felt few regrets?
What strikes me about this question is that it applies to all of us. When we come to end of our lives, will we be able to see things the way they really are? Maybe not. Like Nixon, we might defend ourselves very skillfully, overlooking our faults and remembering our successes. But at our ‘dying of the light’ what will be the truth about our lives? Will it be whatever we wish it to be — or are there standards? Christians believe in God’s final judgment — but we also believe in His divine mercy. Is it possible that our life could turn out to be such a catastrophe that God’s mercy might not be able to change it into a triumph?
If we take seriously the human responsibility for making choices and using freedom for good and not evil, it seems to me that we have to admit that some humans could architect a catastrophe from their choices. It appears that Judas Iscariot, Hitler, Stalin and others have done that. But surely our transgressions don’t match these ‘super-heros of evil.’ God can overlook things and find ways to make our ordinary lives right. This brings me to the point of this post.
What if we knew the truth about God’s purpose for us — our unique talents, gifts and situation? What if we could see the gap between what might have been and what actually happened, due to our choices? My sense is that this gap would likely be enormous for each of us — because we do not take seriously the purpose for which God created us. Perhaps our blindness is what God overlooks in His mercy. Perhaps we are judged leniently, against what we consciously and willingly have chosen to recognise as God’s purpose for us. Even against that relaxed standard I feel uncomfortable. In the end, I am uncertain about what the truth about my own life will be. I can only say with the Psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” [Psalm 51:1]