That famous line from Arthur Miller's play, "Death of a Salesman" - "So attention must be paid" - has made the headlines recently. As I've read eulogies for this playwright, I'm reminded of when I first saw "Death of a Salesman" shortly after it premièred in New York.
My husband and I had taken the mother of a friend of ours to the theater. Her comment after seeing the production was that she didn't have to see a play to learn about the life of traveling salesmen. Doing her job, demonstrating a food product, she traveled a lot and frequently visited with harried salesmen as they gathered in local bars. She was moved, as we all were, by the plight of Willy Loman, the traveling salesman, who represented those who experience defeat in their life struggles.
That evening is still clear in my thought, especially these lines spoken by Linda, Willy Loman's wife. Willy was "not the finest character that ever lived," she said. "But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid."
I didn't feel as empathetic with the main character of the play as our guest did, but it roused me to question, What is an individual's real identity and destiny? How do people keep from getting lost in a flood of failures?
The first chapter of the Bible states: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."
And in a book inspired by and based on biblical teaching, Mary Baker Eddy wrote: "Man is spiritual and perfect.... is idea, the image, of Love," and she described "man" as "the generic term for all that reflects God's image and likeness" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," page 475). What a grand view is this spiritual description of man, and what a contrast to the flawed Willy Loman.
Over the half century since first seeing "Death of a Salesman," I have become increasingly aware that the ideal man does have a healing relationship with the Willy Lomans of the world when we pay the right kind of attention.
To ignore any one of our fellow human beings, especially when that one is not exhibiting the "finest character," is a cruel mistake. To accept that this is the true view of that individual is also a mistake. Being willing to look at character flaws in ourselves and others just long enough to see that those flaws are not the real identity of anyone is paying the right attention.
The more we learn of the true nature of man as the very likeness of God, the more we are aware of this in those we meet. Man, understood as including male and female, is a wonderful creation.
When "terrible things" are happening to our fellow humans, we must pay attention - not only to those who are caught in some tragic event, but also to those who feel the tragedy of failure in their daily lives.
People often need approval most when they have done little to gain it. But it isn't difficult for us to find things to value and appreciate in people when we take the time to look beneath the surface. As we learn more of what God really is, we get glimpses of the divine image and likeness. This creation is a wonderful likeness, and what isn't that likeness does not really belong to God's creation.
While this exalted view may reveal flaws in others as well as in ourselves, we can view those flaws as not belonging to the person. Not ignoring such defects, but separating them from the true identity of anyone, helps reform the character of the individual. And in this new form there is no evidence of the defect.
While our hearts may be with the Willy Lomans, the influence of Miller's play extends beyond the personal. "Death of a Salesman" has had a profound moral effect in the United States and countless other countries over 50 years.
I hope the world is alert to "when terrible things are happening" to others, and that this awareness will effect cultural and social change. Compassion replacing indifference, individually and collectively, results from our paying prayerful attention to one another.