Fighting to Revive Society's Dispirited Soul
Like Noah after the flood, says philosopher Carol Ochs, today we face a post-Holocaust world. We can draw lessons from Noah, she says, and other figures who kept faith and moved forward after devastating setbacks.
CAROL Ochs is down to the nitty-gritty. She is down to the point of laying it all out simply. In plain language. ``Life is a profound gift, and it makes me sad that some people can't experience how wonderful this world is,'' she says. ``I'm really trying ... to wake these people up to the possibility of really loving their lives and experiencing the wonder in this world.''
Spoken in a voice tinged with the Bronx of her origin, and accented by a pair of expressive hands, her words reveal a lot about her work: She hasn't chosen philosophical ``isms'' to express herself, and in fact she writes more for lay readers than for philosophers. It's an implicitly religious statement, and in her work she cites religious texts with an underlying acceptance of their validity. It's also an emotional comment, which signals her belief that loving life and experiencing wonder demand emotio nal as well as intellectual engagement.
For 24 years, Dr. Ochs has been teaching philosophy at Boston's Simmons College and writing for an audience of ``educated lay readers.'' Her most recent work, now at the printer, addresses ``societal deadness,'' the loss of soul and spirit that she sees at the heart of contemporary problems like drug abuse and splintered families.
Ochs doesn't serve, or work within, a particular religious denomination. Her 1986 book, ``An Ascent to Joy,'' (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press) cites a wide range of sources: Jewish theologians, philosophers like Baruch Spinoza, and fourth-century Christian monks called the ``Desert Fathers'' figure heavily, but there are also references to Confucianism and psychoanalysis.
She worships in a religious fellowship associated with the Movement for Jewish Renewal, but she isn't considered an exclusively Jewish thinker. She's aiming for the ``reflective person,'' she says in her windowless Simmons office, which doesn't feel like a decent place for her own reflections. (She writes at home, in fact.)
In looking at ``Western culture's consciousness since World War II,'' Ochs is reminded of Noah pondering the flood he has just survived: He bears a covenant from God, but sees widespread devastation. Ochs says the responses of Noah and other Biblical figures to similar ``floods'' should speak to our own search for strength in the face of adversity and the temptation to lose faith. Her new book is ``The Noah Paradox: Time as Burden, Time as Blessing'' (U. of Notre Dame Press).
The problem at the root of ``deadness'' - how to recover from the Holocaust and the use of the nuclear bomb - isn't a new one for philosophers and theologians. But she says the problem isn't unprecedented.
``I'm saying that it feels like nobody ... has ever lived through the time we're living through. But in fact there were a series of what I call `floods' described in the Hebrew scriptures that show how people in fact dealt with [deadness].'' For the exiled children of Israel, she adds, the destruction of Solomon's temple ``is the loss of all things that they had used to center themselves, that made them feel the world was right. But they persevered, and the question is: What enabled them to go on?'' The ``qualitative change'' for the children of Israel, as Ochs reads the scripture, ``comes through creativity. They are forced to create new forms of worship because they don't have the temple worship anymore....''
Deadness, as Ochs describes it, is the feeling that there is no hope for the future, a condition that makes time feel like an unsupportable burden. For the children of the Bomb, as the postwar generations have been called, Ochs sees ``many of the things that are happening in our society as symptomatic of our inability to deal with time.... That's a large part of what substance abuse is about. I think it's a large part of what frenetic activity is about - that we don't want to slow down sufficiently to d iscover who we are because we're not sure we are going to like the answer.''
Ochs says we can be courageous through one tragedy. But the possibility of future Holocausts, nuclear and otherwise, causes us to lose strength. ``There comes a point where you say, `Let me out of here! I don't even want to envision what's going to happen next.'''
In ``An Ascent to Joy,'' Ochs lays out a strategy for fighting back. It's a prelude to the societal analysis she takes up in ``The Noah Paradox.''
``When the world goes dead for us,'' Ochs writes, ``when it ceases to engage us and is no longer a place where we can find joy,'' we have to act. She wants us to reinterpret the loss, mourning, and pain that beget deadness as opportunities for growth. She wants us to see deadness as a sign that ``we are not in right relationship to reality. Deadness alerts us to the fact that something is wrong.''
SHE interprets the creation account in Genesis as a time when God separates one thing from another to create individual identity - a good process. But the separation that takes place in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden is a negative action. So separation, for her, goes both ways: ``A space is created through separation, one that can be construed either as a void or as a plenum, and in that ambiguity lies our freedom.''
Ochs says the space created by separation, and the concomitant feeling of deadness, offers us a chance to reinvigorate ourselves - to realign ourselves with ``a world inherently fascinating and wonderful.''
And, she writes, ``it is ... love, as action, that can carry us beyond mourning to renewed joy.'' She says that we usually think of love as something that happens to us, rather than as something we command. But she bids us to see that it also means ``being concerned with day-to-day life, with the common deeds, the little details, the apparent trivialities of daily concerns.
``We must sustain love, and life; we must struggle for peace and meaning. We must sustain relationships, recommit ourselves day in and day out. Our commitment must be like breathing....''
Is this an effective prescription? Arthur Waskow, a theologian and leader of the Movement for Jewish Reform, says ``Ascent to Joy'' has been ``useful in a practical way,'' but adds that Ochs's work is more likely to reach ``the religiously active'' than laymen.
Rabbi Jack Riemer of Miami, reviewing the book in the Dayton Jewish Chronicle, says it ``offers a number of nuggets worth xeroxing and posting on the refrigerator or on the mirror and a number of paragraphs worth coming back to again and again.''
Some of those nuggets come out in Ochs's frequent references to her personal experience. The first few pages of ``Ascent to Joy'' describe the sense of goodness she saw in her dog Boris, and the lesson she learned watching him age. ``Boris,'' she writes, ``could not employ images to refresh and renew him, but we, being human, have this possibility.''
The focus on personal experience, she hopes, will give her writing an immediacy that will affect the reader. ``Otherwise it's [just] somebody else's argument out there, and I want to bring it close to home.''
Both books derive from Ochs's experience. ``The Noah Paradox'' is dedicated, she says, ``to the memory of my father-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor.... The reason I dedicated it to him was [that] he was wildly in love with his grandchildren, and I wanted to know what allowed him to reengage in life.''
Feb. 11: Influential teacher Robert Goeser
Feb. 25: Christian radicals Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon
TODAY: Philosopher Carol Ochs
March 11: Black lecturer Cornel West
March 18: Christian Century editor James Wall