For 15 years I have wanted to meet Robert Coles. I first came across his name at the bottom of a brief article on “The promise of the cross, and what it means to me” in, of all places, Harper’s magazine. What kind of person could get an article on the cross published in a prestigious New York publication?
Over the years, I noticed Coles’s byline popping up in the most unlikely contexts: a review of the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos in the New York Times Book Review, or a discussion of Kierkegaard and Pascal in the New England Journal of Medicine. While other Christians bemoaned the bias of the secular press against articles on faith, Robert Coles—a name unknown to most evangelicals—was writing wherever he wanted, from an unabashedly Christian viewpoint.
In a 1972 cover story, Time called Coles “the most influential living psychiatrist in the U.S.” Yet when did he ever find time to practice psychiatry? He taught courses at Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, yes, but courses in literature, the “literature of transcendence,” as he called his pet list of religion-oriented novels. He seemed a man with a thousand interests, and whenever he found a new interest he wrote a book about it: a book of conversations with the radical priest Daniel Berrigan, a book of literary criticism on novelist Walker Percy, biographies of Simone Weil and Dorothy Day—38 books in all, and 900 articles.
His most impressive work, the five-volume Children of Crisis series, ran to more than a million words and earned Coles a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Later he was selected for a MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” a tax-free, no-strings-attached grant of $255,000.
Yet Coles was hardly an ivory-tower academic. In fact, he practiced a very unorthodox kind of field research. He followed children from place to place, asking a few questions, winning their trust, taking notes on yellow-lined legal pads. He rode a school bus with such children, sitting on undersized, uncushioned bench seats, gripping the rusty handgrips as the bus bounced its way to school and back. He became known as “The Crayon Man,” because he would always ask the children to draw pictures.
Child psychiatrist, lay theologian, literary critic, journalist, “The Crayon Man”—who is the real Robert Coles, and why do so many people listen to him?
A Life In Reverse
By his own admission, Robert Coles’s life only makes sense when viewed in reverse. He spent most of his youth in a confused, wandering state, unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. Only later could he see in those events a pattern that hints at why he became the person he is, with the interests he pursues so intensely.
He grew up in a solidly middle-class home in a Boston suburb, attending Boston Latin School. His mother came from Iowa, and his father from England, out of half-Jewish, half-Catholic stock. His father, a worldly scientist who went to MIT, viewed all matters religious with great skepticism.
Bob’s Episcopalian mother, however, had a religious, even mystical, bent. She knew the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and freely quoted them to her son. If he came home with a good report card, she followed her motherly praise with a homily about the sin of pride.
As an adolescent, Bob Coles felt tugged in two directions: toward his father’s hard-headed pragmatism and his mother’s warm pietism. He was never sure what he believed about God.
He did well enough in school to get into Harvard University, where he majored in English literature. There, Coles fell under the spell of William Carlos Williams, who combined the dual careers of doctor and poet. The combination appealed to young Coles as a way to help people, through medicine, and still take time to reflect on those experiences in writing.
After rejections from four or five medical schools, Coles was admitted to the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He had a difficult time there, but proceeded with an internship at the University of Chicago.
Coles muddled through a demanding internship, growing increasingly exhausted and troubled. He found himself staring blankly at stars and trees. He visited Thomas Merton’s Trappist monastery in Kentucky for a period of quiet contemplation. Should he go back to Harvard and study literature? Should he volunteer to work at Albert Schweitzer’s hospital in Africa?
He decided to continue studying medicine. Several well-known psychiatrists had addressed the medical faculty at Coles’s hospital. He knew little about psychiatry—he had read nothing by Freud—but the idea of practicing medicine by talking to people appealed to him. He decided to become a psychiatrist.
Coles came away from that residency with more questions than answers. It puzzled him, for example, that some people became “sick” while others from equally troublesome backgrounds stayed reasonably healthy. The arrogance of his own profession worried him. As his professors debated subtle distinctions in treatment, such as whether to see patients twice or three times a week, Coles wondered whether they were losing touch with the actual needs of real people.
Even as he studied psychiatry, he was drawn more and more to novelists. In a course Coles attended, Paul Tillich had recommended Walker Percy, a physician-turned-novelist. Coles devoured Percy’s work and found in it a more accurate portrayal of humanity than any he had seen in his behavior textbooks.
Coles did not abandon psychiatry, but he developed a new understanding for it, one he could live with. For him the practice of psychotherapy meant two people getting to know one another, learning from one another, and eventually, in dozens of subtle and often unspoken ways, sharing feelings about life. His approach departed from tradition. Freud had said that when you begin to ask about “the meaning of life” you are already sick. Robert Coles found that he could hardly ask about anything else.
Two Key Moments
Then, in the early 1960s, came two key moments in Coles’s life. They seemed mere “accidents” at the time, unscheduled interruptions that interfered with his routine, and yet they now stand out them. Both sides were screaming at each other. The mood was ugly, and Coles feared physical violence could break out at any moment. A frightened Yankee thousands of miles from home, he was in no mood for moral outrage. Instead, he remounted his bicycle and rode away.
That night, working his shift at the base hospital, Coles heard two policemen talking about the incident at the beach. They were his friends—gentle, courteous men he had grown to respect. But tonight they spoke in a threatening tone. “They’d be dead now if it weren’t for all the publicity they get,” said one. “They will be if they try it again,” muttered the other.
Coles said nothing. But he felt irresistibly drawn toward the drama then as hinge events that changed him forever.
Coles was serving as director of an air force psychiatric unit near Biloxi, Mississippi. One Sunday afternoon he set off on a bicycle trip along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Rounding a corner, he heard sounds of fighting. He shook his head disgustedly, wondering why anyone would be so mean-spirited on such a fine spring day.
Some blacks had attempted a “swim-in” at a beach reserved for whites, and a crowd of white people had surrounded being lived out in the South. What moral principle made those blacks risk their lives just to be the first of their race to step into the ocean by an insignificant Mississippi beach? And what force could bring such hatred into the eyes of two mild-mannered white men? He tucked such questions away.
Meanwhile, Coles’s personal life was continuing to drift. In joining the air force, he had hoped for an exotic place to sow his wild oats: San Francisco, maybe, or Hawaii, or Japan. Assigned instead to Mississippi, he often found himself at odds with the military style. Much of the time he seemed morose, withdrawn, introspective, a person who should be receiving analysis rather than giving it.
Coles concluded as much himself, and signed on with a psychoanalyst in New Orleans. Weekly, he drove to a genteel section of New Orleans in order to meet with his psychiatrist. One day, however, he had trouble getting through the lower-class industrial district of Gentilly. State troopers had cordoned off the major roads because of a racial disturbance.
Coles drove over to the site of all the commotion, an elementary school. It was there that he first saw Ruby Bridges, a tiny six-year-old black girl. (For the full story, see CT, Aug. 9, 1985, p. 17.) Ruby was the first black child to attend Frantz School, and all other students were boycotting the school in protest.
Escorted by federal marshalls, she had to walk through the midst of a mob of white people who were screaming obscenities, yelling threats, and waving their fists at her.
As Coles watched the brave young girl, it occurred to him that she would make an ideal subject for studying the effects of stress on young children. It took some time for him to earn the trust of her family; no white person had been in their home before. But Ruby cooperated, and when they ran out of conversation, Coles asked her to draw pictures.
An astonishing thing happened over the next months. Dr. Robert Coles had come in as the expert, a pediatrician and psychiatrist with the full prestige of Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago behind him. He had come to treat an uneducated, disadvantaged black child in the slums of New Orleans. But as time went on, he felt a reversal of roles taking place. He was the student, not Ruby.
At night Coles discussed with his wife, Jane, how he would respond under similar circumstances. What if a gang of angry, club-wielding men and women lined up in front of the Harvard Club to block his entrance? What would he do? He would call the police, of course. But in New Orleans the police were not on Ruby’s side—he remembered the conversation with his policemen friends at the base. He would call his lawyer and get a court order. But Ruby’s family knew no lawyers and could not afford them anyhow. At the least, he would rise above the mob by explaining away their behavior in the language of psychopathology, perhaps even write a condescending article about them. But Ruby knew no such words; she was just learning to read and write.
What did Ruby Bridges do? She prayed: for herself, that she would be strong and unafraid; and also for her enemies, that God would forgive them. “Jesus prayed that on the cross,” she told Coles; “ ‘Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’ ”
On Coles’s academic charts of moral development, magnanimous love for enemies appeared right at the top, a level attained by people like Jesus, and Gandhi, and a few saints. He had not expected to find such a philosophy being lived out, each day, by a six-year-old girl from a “culturally deprived” family.
“He got all A’s and flunked ordinary living,” said novelist Walker Percy about one of his characters in The Second Coming. Robert Coles began to wonder if such a description applied to him too.
A voice from one of Robert Coles’s books:
Last year we went to a little church in New Jersey.… We had all our children there, the baby included. The Reverend Jackson was there, … and he told us how glad we should be that we’re in this country, because it’s Christian and it’s not “godless.” He kept on talking about the other countries, I forget which, being “godless.” Then my husband went and lost his temper; something happened to his nerves, I do believe.… He went up to the Reverend Mr. Jackson and told him to shut up and never speak again—not to us, the migrant people. He told him to go on back to his church, wherever it is, and leave us alone and don’t be standing up there looking like he was so nice to be doing us a favor. Then he did the worst thing he could do: he took the baby, Annie, and he held her right before his face, the minister’s, and he screamed and shouted and hollered at him, that minister, like I’ve never before seen anyone do.… [H]e told him that here was our little Annie, and she’s never been to the doctor, and the child is sick, he knows it and so do I, because she can’t hold her food down and she gets shaking fits, and then I’m afraid she’s going to die, but thank God she’ll pull out of them, and we’ve got no money, not for Annie or the other ones or ourselves.
Then he lifted Annie up, so she was higher than the reverend, and he said why doesn’t he go and pray for Annie and pray that the growers will be punished for what they’re doing to us, all the migrant people. The reverend didn’t answer him, I think because he was scared, and then my husband began shouting some more, about God and His neglecting us while He took such good care of the other people all over … and he held our Annie as high as he could, right near the cross, and told God He’d better stop having the ministers speaking for Him, and He should come and see us for Himself, and not have the “preachers”—he kept calling them the “preachers”—speaking for Him.
—from Children of Crisis, Vol. 2: Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers
With his Ivy League degrees and his licenses to practice medicine packed back home in Massachusetts, Robert Coles embarked on a unique style of work that has not varied for 26 years. A few contacts with people like Ruby Bridges had inspired him. While still living in Mississippi, he began to visit the neighborhoods, house trailers, and agricultural fields of the rural South.
He and his wife, Jane (a schoolteacher), hung around the playgrounds, visited classrooms, and told the parents and children they wanted to learn about their lives.
The first interviews, among black schoolchildren in New Orleans, proved awkward and uncomfortable. The families viewed Robert and Jane Coles with suspicion, as outsiders. Not once were they offered a glass of water during the first few visits. A black guide explained, “No white man ever came here, except to take something away.”
Out of all these visits began the flow of words that became a cascade. Coles and his wife edited the tape transcripts, reworked them into coherence, and drew conclusions about what they had learned. A book on the Southerners, Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear, became volume one of a series that encompassed migrants, sharecroppers, and mountaineers (vol. 2), the poor of our northern cities (vol. 3), Eskimos, Chicanos, and Indians (vol. 4), and finally, children of the well-off in America (vol. 5). Coles was still finding his prose style in the first volume. By relying on actual conversations with children, he was attempting a unique voice, something like equal parts of Mister Rogers, Studs Terkel, and George Will. But the second volume, in its sensitive rendering of the eloquence of the poor, approached true literature, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Along the way, his work with ordinary people provided a second education for Coles. He began to get to know people as individuals, not as members of a sociological group. He found in many “disadvantaged” people a deep reservoir of inner strength he had not seen in middle-class suburbs or in the schools of the privileged.
Coles’s books are filled with verbal snapshots of people who somehow rise above the misery of their lives toward grace. Because they talked to him about God so often, Coles began going to church with the poor. At first the heavy emotionalism troubled him. He sat in the services, listened to the singing, and watched the minister and the congregation with a cool, dispassionate eye. He was looking for telltale signs of the psychosocial forces at work in the religion of the poor.
But again and again he saw migrants, poor blacks, and rednecks profoundly changed by what happened within their churches. Something of great power was set loose in those services, he had to admit to himself, something not easily explained by the jargon he had learned in medical school. Tired people came away renewed, oppressive pain seemed to lessen, hatred melted a little.
The poor had no answers for the unfairness of life. Was it just an accident of birth that had condemned them to a cycle of suffering and poverty? They had little chance to contemplate such questions. But when asked about the source of strength in their lives, they often pointed to Jesus.
Coles reflected on the peculiar circumstances of life God had chosen in coming to Earth as a man. “To ‘them,’ to the people who appear in this book [Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers], God’s suffering requires no complicated explanation, nor does Christ’s pain and humiliation, His harassment and exile, His final disgrace at the hands of His persecutors, all of whom were avowedly high-minded, powerful, practical, and full of pieties. Christ’s suffering is Annie’s suffering, is her parents’ suffering.” What they had to face each day, he had faced before them. He too was “acquainted with grief.”
In his work with the poor, Coles tried to avoid the trap of romanticizing poverty and viewing religion as consolation given to keep the poor quiescent. He lobbied Congress and wrote in liberal journals in support of social programs and the War on Poverty. And yet he could not deny the reality of the life of faith among the people he had lived with. When he wrote about the effect of religion on the poor, reviewers tended to greet him with polite silence. They applauded his “field research” and his fine rendering of the experience of poverty. They quoted him often. But they consistently overlooked the one area—religion—that seemed to Coles most important to the poor themselves.
After four Children of Crisis volumes focusing on disenfranchised groups, Coles turned for his final volume to Privileged Ones: The Well-off and the Rich in America. He followed the same style of interviewing he had perfected in his work with the poor, but found it harder to get to the rich; they had built up barriers of suspicion and fear that effectively kept people at a distance from the inner workings of their lives.
For 15 years Coles had heard the poor talk about “them”: the privileged ones, the blessed ones, those with food on their table and doctors at their call and an education and a couple of cars and a house of their own with no landlord. Yet what had such comfort created? Were the rich any happier? More peaceful? More grateful?
Once again psychiatrist Coles encountered paradoxes in human nature that seemed to defy the neat behaviorist formulas he had been taught. Among the poor he had expected defeat and despair; he found some, but he also found strength, and hope, and courage. Among the rich he expected satisfaction; instead he found boredom, and alienation, and decadence.
He spelled out all the details in that fifth volume, the book he considers the best of the series but the one most ignored by reviewers.
Rich kids who tried to break out of their sheltered surroundings and respond to the call of conscience were sometimes viewed as abnormal. Coles interviewed a child from a very wealthy Florida family who had encountered the teachings of Christ around the age of ten. He started repeating some of Jesus’ statements in school—such as how hard it is for rich people to get into heaven, and how the poor will inherit the kingdom. His questions became a “problem” for his parents, and his teachers, and his family doctor. Ultimately his parents stopped taking him to church and signed him up for psychotherapy to cure his “problem.”
People in the very best circumstances were apt to have a stunted sense of compassion. Like the elder brother in The Brothers Karamazov, they were more likely to love humanity in general but less likely to love one person in particular. As Coles explored the mind of the privileged ones, he realized he was exploring his own mind. And, to his shame, he found within himself many of the same troubling tendencies.
Did he show compassion? As a Harvard undergraduate he had treated the dorm maid as a lowly servant even while pulling in A’s in his ethics courses. What about arrogance? A doctor, he fought the temptation every day; he was, after all, the expert, the healer who had come to help the disadvantaged. Pride? What really motivated him anyway? Why was he driving himself to get the degrees, pick up the awards, write all the books?
Reflecting on the rich and poor people he had gotten to know, Coles was struck with the haunting ironies of life. It was true the poor were cursed: he had treated the miners with black lung disease, and the malnourished children like little Annie whose father had held her up before the cross (she died at age three). Yet, in a strange but undeniable way, the poor were also blessed, for whatever reason, with qualities such as courage and love and a willing dependence on God. The irony: Good humanists work all their lives to improve the condition of the disadvantaged, but for what? To pull them up to the level of the upper classes so that they, too, can experience the despair of boredom, alienation, and decadence?
Coles recalled a scene from his medical school days, when he had volunteered with the Catholic Worker Movement. A wry fellow worker had painted this graffito on the side of the building that housed the poor:
“Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”
Gandhi: “I think it would be a great idea.”
Back To The Sermon On The Mount
By the time the last of the Children of Crisis volumes had been published, Robert Coles had ended up not in a new place, but in a very old place. He had traveled thousands of miles, recorded miles of tape, and written a million words, all of which pointed right back to the Sermon on the Mount. He had discovered that the poor are mysteriously blessed and that the rich live in peril. He had learned that what matters most comes not from without—the circumstances of life—but from within, inside the heart of an individual man or woman or child. He had begun his research with a head full of phrases such as “guilt complex,” “character disorders,” “response to stimuli.” He had emerged with old-fashioned words like conscience and sin and free ethical choice.
What was he to make of it all? He dare not glorify poverty—he knew firsthand the folly of that romanticism. And yet he dare not glorify wealth—what matters most in man and woman lies entirely apart from wealth. And that is when he turned to the “saints,” a few select men and women who had made their entire life’s focus an attempt to dwell on spiritual matters: Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton.
Robert Coles the social scientist continued to pursue his work diligently. But a new role also opened up: teacher of “the Literature of Christian Reflection” at Harvard.
Undoing The Devil
Robert Coles likes to begin interviews at a greasy-spoon restaurant around the corner from his office. “Bartlee’s Famous Hamburgers,” the sign proudly announces. Inside, the place is decorated like the Hollywood set for a Harvard hang-out: wood paneling, red plastic chairs, a menu scrawled with chalk on blackboards, a broken violin hanging on the wall.
Coles himself looks more like a student than a distinguished Harvard professor: he enters wearing a rumpled blue cotton shirt and khaki pants, with a cranberry-colored backpack slung across his left shoulder. He is of medium height, and thin. He has a tanned, wrinkled face, with tousled hair that looks as if he has been running his hands through it all day. He speaks in a Northeastern twang, and laughs loudly at anything slightly redolent of humor.
Traditionally, he has only a glass of iced tea for lunch before moving back to his office, situated just a block away from Harvard Yard. The university provides the office for him in a spacious corner of a historic brick building. A plaque on the wall notes that Franklin Roosevelt used the room as a dorm room from 1900 to 1904. Also on the wall is a gallery of memorabilia: a poster of Simone Weil, photos of Bonhoeffer and Walker Percy and Dorothy Day and psychologist Erik Erikson and novelist James Agee. The office is a quiet, well-organized place of retreat, a home base from which Coles plans field research and prepares lectures for the various schools associated with Harvard.
Coles still travels with his wife, using the same work techniques he developed 26 years ago. In the last 10 years he has spent much time outside the United States, interviewing children in Brazil, Ireland, Nicaragua, and South Africa. Last year he gathered together the closetfuls of notes and tapes from all his interviews with children, and published a grand summary of his work in two volumes: The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children.
Coles teaches in Harvard College, and also in the schools of medicine, business, and law, but nowhere does he teach a course in his field of specialty. Instead, he teaches the great novelists and Christian thinkers. His reading list includes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Pascal, Merton, John of the Cross, Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Thomas a Kempis, Kierkegaard, Bernanos, Agee, William Carlos Williams, Orwell, George Eliot, and, of course, Coles’s all-time favorite and good friend, Walker Percy. From this list he tailors literature courses to the needs of special fields: a course on “Literature of Christian Reflection” at the college, one on social ethics for the medical school and business school, and one on Dickens and the law for the school of law.
What transformed a physician and social scientist into a devotee of literature? Coles answers, “A man like Tolstoy knew more psychology than the whole twentieth-century social science scene will ever know. All this stuff about the stages of dying coming out now—why not just go back and read The Death of Ivan Ilyich? It said everything. And who has added any wisdom to the field of marital problems since Anna Karenina? I simply wander around from one place to the next, teaching these novels and trying to, in a way, undo the Devil in the medical school, law school, and business school.”
Why do they invite him in? “I don’t know. For idolatrous reasons, probably. Well-known psychiatrist listed on the brochure, that sort of thing. Some of the students get the point: I hear from them, and I know they’ve been touched by what they’ve read. But it’s hard here. This is the citadel of ‘secular humanism,’ you know!
“Yet literature has its own power that takes over. Flannery O’Connor wrote a beautiful book of essays called Mystery and Manners, and the title alone cuts right through all the social sciences: Novels pay respect to the ‘mystery and manners’ of individual human beings. The novelists are not interested in theory, or in turning their brains into godlike pontifical organs. Instead they evoke and render complexity, irony, ambiguity, paradox. They discover, and acknowledge, that each person is a separate, finite mystery, not something that can be contained in one category or another.”
Robert Coles is leaning back on a tan sofa, with sunlight flooding in and curtains shifting in the breeze. But he might as well be perched on the platform, behind the lectern—or pulpit, if you will—of one of his classes at Harvard. He is taking them all on now: the students with their SAT scores of 800 and their pedigrees and designer jogging outfits, faculty colleagues with their curricula vitae and committee appointments and airtight theories explaining the economy and human behavior and everything in the universe. And himself: Coles keeps coming back to himself, pointing out the idolatry and pride and self-dependence that have fueled his own life for 57 years.
The students try to make him into a hero. They applaud him for the years he spent with migrant farmhands. “But what would happen at the end of the day?” he reminds them in his classes. “They’d go back to their shacks or trailers, and I’d check into the Holiday Inn. Sure I felt guilty, and I probably should. I can imagine what some of us with our phobia of guilt would say to Jesus. ‘Hey, buddy, take it easy! Don’t worry about those people that need some bread! Why are you visiting prisons? Do you have a hangup? There must be some shrink over in Galilee you can talk to.’ ”
Coles talks a lot about his own failures and inadequacies. He feels he must, to keep at bay the sins of pride and arrogance that stalk a place like Harvard.
“Like the Pharisees,” he says, “we want to prove ourselves clean, and righteous. But Jesus and the prophets keep the questions up in the air. Okay, you don’t murder; do you hate? You don’t commit adultery; do you lust? We like to analyze ‘the problem of the poor.’ But what are we doing for one poor person? I went to Mississippi at a time of crisis, expecting to learn about ‘the problem of Mississippi.’ I learned that there’s a little bit of Mississippi in all of us—and a little bit of Massachusetts, South Africa, and Northern Ireland, too.”
Clearly A Religious Freak
For the students at Harvard, for the broader audience that buys his books, for the millions who read about him in magazines and newspapers, Robert Coles tries to keep the questions up in the air. “It’s quite clear,” he told a reporter for the Washington Post in a front-page story, “that I’m a religious freak. What else do you do when you get old and stop and think about what this life is all about?” And because of his credentials, people have to pause and pay attention.
Coles likes to quote Kierkegaard: “He said that Hegel explained everything in life except how to get through an ordinary day.” That, more than any other reason, is why Robert Coles teaches literature to business majors rather than psychiatry to medical students. “We have systems here to explain everything—except how to live. And we have categories for every person on Earth, but who can explain just one person?”
Can Robert Coles explain just one person? After a career of listening and interviewing, what has he learned about human beings? He thinks for a while, and then points to the Bible. “Nothing I have discovered about the makeup of human beings contradicts in any way what I learn from the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, and from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and from Jesus and the lives of those he touched. Anything that I can say as a result of my research into human behavior is a mere footnote to those lives in the Old and New Testaments.
“I have known human beings who, in the face of unbearable daily stress, respond with resilience, even nobility,” says Coles. “And I have known others who live in a comfortable, even luxurious, environment and yet seem utterly lost. We have both sides in all of us, and that’s what the Bible says, isn’t it? The Bible shows us both hope and doom, the possibility and the betrayal. In its stories, sometimes the favorite becomes fatally tempted and sometimes the lowly and obscure one becomes an agent of hope, if not salvation. I believe those stories are a part of each one of us. We walk a tightrope, teetering between gloom, or the loss of faith, on the one hand, and a temptation toward self-importance and self-congratulation on the other. Both extremes lead to sin.
“Some reviewers criticize me for saying the same old things about the nature of human beings: that we are a mixture of good and evil, of light and darkness, of potentiality toward destruction or redemption. They want some new theory, I suppose. But my research merely verifies what the Bible has said all along about human beings.
“If I can get some medical student to think of himself and his neighbor as Jesus taught us to, then I have served some kind of purpose here. I may be getting a little melodramatic, but I think maybe Jesus wouldn’t mind coming to that medical student through the medium of one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The biblical tradition belongs in our universities, and it’s a privilege to call upon it as a teacher.”
Each year when he begins his literature classes, Coles reads a quote from novelist James Agee. “I would as soon stand up and read from the Gospel of Luke,” Coles explains, “but that probably would not work here. So I turn to the great literature that gets across that same message, such as this quotation from Agee: ‘All that each person is, and experiences, and shall ever experience, in body and mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe.’ ”
What Robert Coles has been talking about all these years is the inherent dignity of man, the image of God that lives in all of us, black or white, educated or illiterate, rich or poor—the spark that makes every mortal immortal. He did not start out believing it. But it was what the children told him, and then the novelists, and then the sum of his research. And it is what he is trying to tell the rest of us now.
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