Source: The Marginalian
Across epochs and cultures, in his famous indictment “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) shone his piercing beam of truth upon the fundamental fact beneath Tolstoy’s insight that we only see as much kindness as we ourselves possess: We are untender with each other because we cannot bear the terrifying difficulty of being human, vulnerable and perishable as we are.
And yet, like Tolstoy, Baldwin thought deeply about what saves us — from ourselves and, in consequence, from each other — and, like Tolstoy, he recognized that, in the end, only love does. In his lifeline for the hour of despair — which remains one of his most penetrating and most personal essays, and one of his least known — he observes:
I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.
In the final essay from the same forgotten treasure, Baldwin revisits the subject in what can best be described as a prose poem of eternal truth:
The earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
But to hold each other in the faith of love is no small triumph for our fear-frayed hearts. In one of his final interviews, echoing Rilke’s insistence that “for one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,” Baldwin reflects:
Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.
And yet, as he told Margaret Mead in their historic conversation, it is a responsibility to our own humanity:
We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.