What matters is that something is happening

Hans Jonas was born into a German Jewish household in 1903. As a boy, he longed for excitement. However, the most exciting events always seemed to be happening elsewhere. It seemed unlikely that he could fulfill his boyhood “dreams of glory” in the monotony of everyday life there.

Before the First World War, the most significant world events in his memory had been the sinking of the Titanic and the Balkan Wars. Comparing these events to his “charmed life — in a country that had known nothing but peace for decades, that was flourishing economically, and as a child in a comfortably situated family,” he found his life and the lives of his family members to be very boring.

He recalls:

When something of significance happened, it was always far away, and other people had the advantage of experiencing it close up, whether it was the soldiers and the civilian populations in the Balkans or those passengers out in the middle of the ocean. But to me it was a sad fate to have been born into a period and a world where everything was in tip-top order and the only real excitement was to be found in history books and occasionally also in the paper.

. . . I certainly had such a feeling, because I still remember, with some shame, the regret I felt at being denied the experience of living in an age of greatness, in which a person could display heroism, in which there were victories, perhaps also defeats, but at least something important was happening, something I could experience directly or even play a role in, and of course it would be a hero’s role, maybe even a sacrificial role — I didn’t assume that I would escape unscathed. What mattered was that something was happening.

Well, something did happen. Many things did. And in Jonas’ 89 years on earth, he lived his childhood during the First World War, studied philosophy with the leading German thinkers of his day, left Germany in the early 1930s, lived in Palestine for a decade before joining the Jewish Brigade of the British Army during the Second World War, got married, suffered learning that his mother had been murdered in Auschwitz, took part in Israel’s War of Independence, had children, and eventually taught philosophy at Carleton University and then in New York.

Today I have been reflecting on when life seems “interrupted.” It’s something that many of my best historical friends and those who I admire most experienced profoundly. Why? Because it is precisely in the interruptions that the drama lies, that character is forged, and that we can know with confidence that God’s will is being done (because it surely isn’t ours – yet).

Many of the events that we consider pivotal and meaningful are really instances of interrupted life becoming defining moments of both character growth and plot development. And as Isak Dinesen beautifully put it, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”

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