Confronting Indifference with W.H. Auden: Let the More Loving One Be Me

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Fair warning: this is going to be one of those posts where I introduce and unpack one of my favorite poems (like I do  here, here, and here). I do stuff like this because of my peculiar pathology: I think that poetry matters—especially when I am feeling particularly frustrated or angry or sad. This has been a poetry week. Big time.

When times are tough, my go-to poet is, more often than not, W.H. Auden–a poet who walks right up to the edge of maudlin sentimentality, peers into the abyss, but never quite goes there. His work is grounded in a deep humanism and an ethic of love, but with just enough irony to prevent sugar poisoning. And he also believes in God—mostly, in a not-always-unproblematic way. Auden is about as sappy as a poet can get while still maintaining a reasonable claim to greatness.

Perhaps my favorite Auden poem, and one that I have been re-reading a lot this week, is “The More Loving One” (1960). It is here that Auden confronts the most horrible possibility for all believers—the idea of a universe indifferent to our existence. He is trying to find an honest answer to the question, “What if there is no God?” or the even more disturbing, “What if there is a God, and He just doesn’t care?” His answer deserves serious consideration:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Auden is not confronting the idea of a hostile or antagonist universe. In many ways, active hostility is easier to handle than cold indifference. Christ taught us, “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). This works as well for grand cosmic forces as it does for lousy neighbors; the principle is the same: hate destroys you, whereas love makes you whole, so respond to hate with love. You’ll just feel better.

But what do I do with someone or something that I love and revere but that does not appear to take any notice of my existence? There is something  ennobling about meeting hatred with love. But indifference robs us of even that consolation. For Auden, of course, this something is the stars. But it doesn’t have to be. The poem’s conceit is wide ranging and could be stretched to include:

  • A God that we desperately want to love who does not seem to hear or prayers or respond to our deepest needs
  • An institution (be it political, ecclesiastical, academic, or otherwise) that gives us security and identity that does not have any mechanism for hearing our voice or addressing our concerns
  • A neighbor or family member that we love and respect who takes no notice—positive or negative—of our life
  • A social system that we are a part of that moves in ways that cause us great pain and sadness, not by design, but by carelessness, indifference, and ineptitude

Each of these phenomena (and oh so many more) implies a question, to which the answer is the same: Let the more loving one be me. I bear testimony that this is the true answer, at least on the conceptual level, though I am still not quite sure what it looks like in real life. But it is an answer that definitely implies some boundaries—the boundaries appropriate to love and reverence. And it calls me to a higher plane regardless of what the stars choose to do.

And if the stars disappear forever, it calls me to learn to love the darkness as much as I once loved the light.

Comments

  1. As a poet, I really appreciate your thoughts, and that there are still people who find great meaning in poems that speak to their souls.

    I love the thought experiment of this poem, and the beauty in learning to love more deeply, even if indifference is all we can expect in return.

  2. Beautiful. I needed this today. It reminds me of Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference,” when he says, “Of course, indifference can be tempting–more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.”

  3. As one who is in a learning to love the darkness period, I appreciate that Auden treats it as a genuine and valued option.

  4. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Bulls eye! Once more you have reached me with your poetry and deep insights. You have assuaged my suffering. Thanks Mike!

  5. Thoughtful, deep, challenging and hopeful. Thank you.

  6. Wow. Thank you so much for this. truly.

  7. My daughter’s name is Auden. Grateful to be reminded tonight why I chose it.

  8. Longtime reader, first-time commenter, and I just wanted to give a quick “Amen.” Both from the content of the post and a capstone paper on Auden in the fairly distant past, this spoke to me. Thank you.

  9. Much love to you and thanks for this post. Check out the lyrics to this Alexander song that have brought me comfort through times like this:

    All out of my secrets
    All my enemies are turning into my teachers.
    Because, lights blinding, no way dividing
    what’s yours or mine when everything’s shining
    You darkness is shining
    My darkness is shining
    Have faith in ourselves
    Truth

  10. The photo is every bit as beautiful as the poem. Let the more loving one be me, indeed…

  11. Wonderful–thank you! My morning scripture reading today happened to be the Charity scriptures in Corinthians. Today I’m strengthened by the idea that charity trumps all.

  12. Thank you.

  13. Poetry matters, and I have resorted to Mary Oliver myself in the past week. Thanks for reminding us that we are always agents, and that indifference on our part cheapens us.