Living in Providence, a short train ride away from Boston, I often visited Rod and Betty. Rod lived in Wellesley Hills, a Boston suburb. Betty, a dear friend as well as my first cousin, was a student at nearby Wellesley College.
Rod had enrolled at Boston University. He was as good-humored and intense about everything as ever. Together we devoted much time to what might, with some generosity, be described as the Indian spiritual practice of neti, neti (“not this, not that”).(1) That is to say, we engaged in a running analysis, complete with droll commentary and merry exaggeration, on some of the follies to which mankind is addicted.
There was the living-to-impress-others dream: “I work on Wall Street. (Pause) Of course, you know what that means.”
There was the “Protestant ethic,” the I’m-glad-I’m-not-happy-because-that-means-I’m-good dream: “I wouldn’t think of telling you what you should do. All I ask is that you (sigh) let your conscience be your guide.”
A favorite of ours was the if-you-want-to-be-sure-you’re-right-just-follow-the-crowd dream: “You’d better march in step, son, if you want the whole column to move.”
Rod was a wonderful mimic. He could make even normally reasonable statements sound ridiculous. He attained his height when imitating someone hopelessly inept trying to sound like a big shot.
We also discussed seriously the fulfillments we both wanted from life. The longer we talked, the longer our list of minuses grew, and the shorter, that of the plusses. For Rod, these narrowing horizons meant the gradual loss of ambition to become a writer. For me, it meant a gradual redirection of ambition from worldly to spiritual attainments: from writing about truth to living it.
In those days, as I’ve mentioned earlier, college students were not so preoccupied as they are today with the search for meaning. For most of them, the ideal was “Get to the top; become wealthy, respected, and important; marry someone suitable; buy a big home and populate it with children; let everyone see you enjoying life; better still, get them to envy you for enjoying it.” Needless to say, the gradations of worldly ambition are many, by no means all of them crass. Youth, however, in its quest for personal directions, is seldom sensitive to the directions of others. If Rod and I were ungenerous, it was partly because we were still preoccupied with defining our own goals.
Not surprisingly, some of the people whose values we rejected reciprocated to some degree with antagonism. Rod, in fact, almost invited hostility by judging them, along with their values. Ever tending to extremes, he either praised people to the skies as “perfectly wonderful,” or condemned them to the depths as “dreadful” or “ridiculous.”
Judgment forms a barrier, however. In excluding others, one’s criticism of them also encloses himself. Rod, by his judgmental attitude, was gradually painting himself psychologically into a corner. After all, if others didn’t measure up to his ideals, it behooved him to prove that he himself did measure up. The stricter his standards became for others, the more impossible they became for himself. I remember a space of two or three months when, though supposedly working on a novel, he never progressed beyond typing “Page one, Chapter one,” on an otherwise blank page. In time I suppose he had no choice but to abandon writing altogether. It was a pity, for his was one of the most talented, intelligent, and deeply perceptive natures I have ever known.
I myself, though not so judgmental as Rod, could be cutting in my remarks. I justified this tendency by telling myself that I was only trying to get people to be more discriminating. There is never a good excuse, however, for unkindness. In one important respect, indeed, my fault was greater than Rod’s, for whereas his judgments were directed at people he scarcely knew, my criticisms were reserved for my friends.
I once wrote a stinging letter to Betty, simply because I felt that she wasn’t trying hard enough to develop her own very real spiritual potential. Occasionally even my mother came under fire from me. It was years, and many hurts to myself, before I realized that no one has a right to impose his will on others. Everyone has a right to his own level of freedom. Respect for that freedom is, indeed, essential if one would counsel others wisely. Without due regard for another person’s right to be himself, one’s perception of his needs will be insensitive, and will seldom be wholly accurate. I, certainly, had all the insensitivity of immature understanding. The hurts I gave to others were never compensated for by any notable acceptance, on their part, of my advice.
Often on my path I have thought, How can I make amends for the hurts I have given to so many of my friends and dear ones? And as often the answer comes back to me: By asking God to bless them with His love.
Towards the end of my first year at Brown, Rod, having dropped out of Boston University, came to live with me in a room I had taken off campus. We cooked our own meals with the help of a book I had bought for its reassuring title, You Can Cook If You Can Read. I had always looked on cooking as a kind of magic. It delighted me to find in this book such quasi-ritualistic advice as, “To ascertain if the spaghetti is done, throw a piece of it at a wall. If it sticks there, it’s ready to eat.” (Bad advice, I learned years later in Italy. Spaghetti should be “al dente,” which means, “somewhat resistant to chewing.”)
Rooming with Rod, I got an opportunity to observe on a new level the truth, which I’d discovered during my last semester at Haverford, that subjective attitudes have objective consequences. Rod’s tendency to judge others attracted antagonism not only from people he knew, but even, in some strange way, from perfect strangers. In restaurants, people sitting nearby would sometimes scowl at him for no evident reason. One evening a passer-by in a crowded street pulled a gun on him, warning him to mind his own business and leave his girlfriend alone, though Rod hadn’t even noticed them until that moment. Another evening, six men with knives chased him down a dark street; Rod eluded them only by hiding in a doorway. Whenever he and I went out together, all was calm and peaceful. But Rod by himself continually, in some obscure way, invited disaster. Fortunately, I think because he really meant no harm, he always got off without injury.
At this time Rod’s life and mine were beginning to branch apart. Rod shared some of my interest in spiritual matters, but not to the extent of wanting to get involved in them personally. I, on the other hand, was growing more and more keen to mold my life along spiritual lines. We talked freely on most subjects, but on this one I found it better to keep my thoughts to myself.
One day, as I was reading a book, a sudden inspiration came to me with complete certainty; I felt its truth on some deep level of my consciousness. Stunned at the depth of my conviction, I said to Rod, “I’m going to be a spiritual teacher!”
“Don’t be silly!” he snorted, not at all impressed.
Very well, I thought, I’ll say no more. But I know.
The thought of sharing spiritual truths with others, however, in no way inspired me to spend more time in church, where religion held no appeal for me at all. “Hel-lo!” our campus minister simpered sweetly, almost embarrassingly self-conscious in his effort to demonstrate “Christian charity” when he passed us in the hallways. People, I thought, attended church services chiefly because it was the respectable and proper thing to do. Some of them, no doubt, wanted to be good, but how many, I wondered, attended because they loved God? Divine yearning seemed somehow incompatible with going to church, carefully ordered as the services were, and devoid of spontaneity. The ministers in their pulpits talked of politics and sin and social ills — and, endlessly, of money. But they didn’t talk of God. They didn’t tell us to dedicate our lives to Him. No hint passed their lips that the soul’s only true Friend and Beloved dwells within, a truth which Jesus stated plainly. Socially inconvenient Biblical teachings, such as Jesus’ commandment, “Leave all, and follow me,” were either omitted from their homilies altogether or hemmed in with cautious qualifications that left us, in the end, exactly where we were already, armed now with a good excuse.
My impression was that the ministers I listened to hesitated to offend their wealthy parishioners, whom they viewed as customers. As for direct, inner communion with God, no one ever mentioned it. Communion was something one took at the altar rail with the aid of a priest.
One Sunday I attended a service in Boxford, a little town north of Boston. The sermon title was “Drink to Forget.” And what were we supposed to forget? Well, the wicked Japs and their betrayal of us at Pearl Harbor. The brutal Nazis and their atrocities. Nothing, here, about righting our own wrongs, or seeing God in our enemies. Nothing even about forgiving them their wrongs. The sacrificial wine served that morning was supposed to help us to forget all the bad things others had done to us. I could hardly suppress a smile when that Lethe-inducing nectar turned out to be, not wine, but grape juice!
If there was one subject that roused me to actual bitterness, it was the utterly commonplace character of religion as I found it taught and practiced in the churches. My bitterness was not because the demands this religion made were impossible, but because they were so unspeakably banal; not because its assertions were unbelievable, but because they were carefully preserved (as if in theological formaldehyde) at the safest, most vapid level of common acceptability. Above all I was disturbed because the churches struck me as primarily social institutions, not lighthouses to guide people out of the darkness of spiritual ignorance. It was almost as if the churchmen were trying to reconcile themselves to that ignorance. With dances, third-class entertainments, and watered-down messages they tried their best to get people simply to come to church, but they neglected the commandment of Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”
Frank Laubach, the great Christian missionary, once launched a campaign to get more ministers simply to mention God in their Sunday sermons. His campaign suggests the deepest reason for my own disillusionment. Of all things in life, it was for spiritual wisdom that I longed most urgently. Yet, most notably, it was the churches that withheld wisdom from me. Instead, they offered dead substitutes. For years I sought through other channels the fulfillment I craved, because the “ministers of the Gospel” from their pulpits made a mockery of the very fulfillments promised in the Bible. To paraphrase the words of Jesus, I asked of them the bread of life, and they offered me a stone.(2)
Thus, hungry as I was for spiritual understanding, I saw no choice but to pursue my career as a writer, looking elsewhere for the inspiration which, had I but known it, only God can supply. It was like walking into darkness for lack of any better place to go. A sense of emptiness kept increasing in my heart, and I knew not how to fill it.
My college classes were becoming increasingly burdensome. Intellectualism was bringing me dryness of heart. It seemed to me almost unbearably trivial to be studying the eighteenth-century novel, when it was the meaning of life itself that I was trying desperately to fathom.
My parents had recently returned from Rumania. I sought their permission to take a leave of absence from college. Reluctantly they gave it. Thus, midway through my senior year I left Brown University. I never returned.
Thereafter, for several months, I lived with my parents. I struggled — gamely, perhaps, but without real hope — over the composition of a two-act play. It concerned nothing I wanted to say. But then, the things I did want to say were the last that I felt myself decently qualified to express.
Occasionally I went into New York City, where I spent hours walking about, gazing at the tragedy of people’s transition from loneliness to apathy. How bereft of joy they all seemed, in their struggle merely to survive in those desolate concrete canyons!
At other times I would stroll, almost in a kind of ecstasy, through the happier setting of Washington Square, observing mothers with their babies, laughing children playing on the lawns, young people singing with guitars by the fountain, trees waving, the fountain spray colorfully playing in the sunlight. All seemed joined together in a kind of cosmic symphony, their many different lives but one life, their countless ripples of consciousness part of one great sea of joy.
The valleys and the peaks of life! What grand truth could level them, bind everything, and make all of this variety one again in God?
Back home one day I told Mother I wouldn’t be going with her to church anymore. This was one of the few times I ever saw her weep. “It pains me so deeply,” she cried, “to see you pulling away from God!” I wasn’t aware of the promise she’d made to God before my birth, giving me, her first-born child, to God. I would in any case have loved to reassure her, and I was deeply touched by her concern for me. But what could I do? My first duty was to be honest with myself, and I was still too uncertain of my own directions.
A few days later Mother sought me out. Hopefully she quoted a statement she had read somewhere that morning to the effect that atheism sometimes presages a deep spiritual commitment. I said, “You have understood.” I was by no means the atheist she thought me to be; nevertheless, it relieved me to see that she understood my rejection of her church as being part, at least, of a sincere quest for truth. I didn’t explain my deep inner feelings to her at the time, however, for fear of diluting the intensity of my own search.
That summer I traveled up to the little town of Putney, Vermont, where my youngest brother Dick was in school. Dick was maturing into a fine young man; I loved him deeply. Something he’d told me had touched me particularly. One day he drove to a house to pick up a group of his friends. As the car rolled slowly to a halt, its bumper lightly touched a dog that was standing complacently before it. The dog wasn’t hurt, but its owner, a small, older man and no physical match for Dick, was furious. Rushing up to the car door, he punched Dick in the jaw through the open window.
At that moment Dick’s friends emerged from the house. Dick, anxious lest they hurt the man for what he had done, said nothing of the matter either to them or him.
During my stay at Putney, a drama teacher there recommended the Dock Street theater in Charleston, South Carolina, as a good place to study stagecraft. For my twenty-first birthday Dad had given me five hundred dollars. (Dick’s comment: “A pleasing precedent has been set!”) I decided, albeit rather in a mood of desperation, that if I was going to be a playwright I might as well go to Charleston with this money and seek, at that theater, direct experience in my craft.