The Hollow Men

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”

– T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I remember reading this poem in high school. Though my sixteen-year-old brain couldn’t fully articulate or understand why, I found it poignant in its gut-wrenching tragedy.  The idea that, for all the possible imagined final moments of Earth, it would end, not with the dramatic flourish of an atomic bomb, but with the pathetically sad fizzle of a Fourth-of-July sparkler, life snuffing out as easily as a candle’s flame.  Long after the analysis papers were written and the English exams taken, these words lingered in my brain, like the vestiges of a dream partially remembered, and from time to time, this quote resurfaces in my mind.

I’m sure there are English Lit PhDs who would argue with my interpretation, but what it highlights to me is the capacity of human beings to slowly drive their way towards extinction, figuratively or literally.  We exhaust the world’s resources like there need be no tomorrow.  Our countries play each other like pawns in a giant game of chess.  And we, all of us, do the same thing to each other.  We conveniently  forget the humanity of our fellow human beings in order to achieve our goals, further our careers, find love and happiness in our lives.  We use people for everything they have to offer, and when they’ve served their purposes for us, we dispose of them like yesterday’s garbage.

You may be thinking right now that what I’m saying doesn’t apply to you.  Maybe you’ve never stepped over someone on your way up the corporate ladder.  Maybe you’ve never cheated on someone in a relationship.  But have you ever stopped hanging out with a friend whose problems became too overwhelming, too depressing for you?  Have you ever ended a relationship just because it wasn’t exciting for you anymore, because you found yourself imagining what it would be like to be with someone new?  Ever gossiped about someone?  Or pushed past someone in the grocery store to be first in line?  Or cut someone off in traffic?  Seeing your reflection in the ugly mirror I’m displaying now?  Me, too.

I wish I could stand here self-righteously and say that I’ve never taken advantage of another person before in my life, but that would be a lie.  In fact, it would probably be a lie to say I haven’t done it this week.  We are all naturally selfishly motivated, living every minute of our lives with our own best interests in mind.  In traffic, at the store, in relationships, in conversations, and at work.  We are all self-serving at heart.

Yet, as a follower of Jesus, I am called to live a life out of the ordinary, one in which I put others before myself, their interests first.  That sounds so nice on paper, doesn’t it?  But it gets really hard in real life when what I want, what’s easiest and best for me, would hurt someone else.  Sure, I could explain my motivations, make it look perfectly understandable, yet I would know that I had acted selfishly to someone else’s detriment.  As I told my five-year-old this week, it’s still wrong, even if no one knows you did it.

And here’s where it really gets sticky to me: what if I’m a bystander rather than perpetrator in the situation?  What if I suspect a wrong, can see an injustice, but stand by and do nothing?  Staying silent is easy.  What requires character is standing up for someone who can’t defend himself.  That’s hard, because we tell ourselves it’s not our problem, none of our business, and we can go on about our lives in peace.  We are all very tolerant of injustice just so long as it doesn’t directly impact what we hold dear.  We bury our heads in the sand and wait for the lion to eat someone else.

It may seem like “no big deal” but to me, integrity is a very big deal.  It’s all I have.  I can’t make anyone else’s choices for them, but I get to choose my own words, my own reactions.  I can’t create a new reputation for myself, and character isn’t made by how I want myself to look, but by how I actually behave.  Want to be a person of good character?  Stand up for what is right, even at your own personal expense.  Speak out in truth and love, even if it’s not well-received.  Act in a way that puts someone else’s interests above your own, even if the cost to you is painful.

If, in the name of harmony, we make apathy and passivity our bedfellows, we will wake up one day realizing that we stand for nothing.  In a world that is hemorrhaging the defenseless and crying out for someone to be a voice for the voiceless, turning a blind eye is unconscionable.  We may not all have influence in the far reaches of the world’s suffering, but we all have influence within the contexts of our own spheres.  We cannot do everything for everyone, but we can all do something for someone.

The greatest moments in history have come at great cost to those who chose to take a stand.  It is never easy, but it’s always right.  So, my question for you is this: when it’s your turn to decide, will you choose to take a stand, or will you be one of the hollow men?