Literature’s Wrath: How Classics Can Move Us To Action

I work as a high school literature and composition teacher.  Every summer, I take the time to re-read and reflect upon a classic work of literature and all that it has to teach.  I do this not only for my own benefit but so that I can pass the lessons on to younger people, encouraging them to read the work for themselves so they can process the issues it raises and then apply the work’s lessons in their own ways.  I don’t tell them what to think about something; that’s not education—that’s indoctrination. My mission isn’t to tell them what a work means (as if there was but one universal interpretation, one answer all must see; this isn’t mathematics), but to lead them in the effort to discover what it means to them so that they can apply that revelation to their own lives and work to make the world around them better.  That doesn’t mean they have to change history, solve world hunger, eliminate poverty, cure cancer, or reverse climate change.  If they do nothing more than learn how to empathize with others who are suffering, listen to them, and let them know there is hope, then together we have succeeded.

This summer I revisited John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  This is a book that every citizen of this country needs to read; not only for the historical benefits in knowing about the Dust Bowl and its repercussions, but even more for the sheer magnitude of human suffering the novel describes.  Steinbeck had his finger on the pulse of the human condition.  I can’t say how the novel will make you as a reader feel (how could I know that?), but I do know how it made me feel.  The emotions were many and mixed, but one of those that stood out was suggested by the title, and that was wrathful.

This is not meant to be a literary analysis by any means, but a quick contextual recap of the novel’s basics wouldn’t hurt to help explain how my own wrath was kindled.  The novel centers on the Joad family.  They are farmers in the Midwest who have been driven from their land due to their inability to farm it, thanks to the ecological devastation of the Dust Bowl.  Their land has been repossessed by nameless, faceless economic forces that they can’t understand.  Machines are starting to replace the farmers themselves, as the machines can do a great deal more work for less expense and in less time.  The Joads are desperate.  They have heard of a place way out west—California—where the work is plentiful; picking fruit, picking cotton, and other jobs. The Joads are convinced that if they can get to California, they would all find work and be able to have a house of their own again; they would have lives again.  So, they pack everything they have onto the one truck they own, and leave their homeland behind in hopes of finding a new life and a future for themselves.

They are not the only ones who have heard that there are opportunities for work in California; it seems that the entire population of their state and the states around them has gotten wind of the supposed “need” for workers way out west.  Just getting there presents massive challenges—for all of them.  Cars break down and overheat, tires get punctured, money is limited, food is scarce; despite it all, they soldier on.

When they reach California, they discover that the “dream” is not exactly what it is cracked up to be.  All of their fellow migrants are there as well, all looking for the “plentiful” work that was promised.  Some find a day’s work here and there for a pittance, enough to eat for another day.  The rest end up spending their days driving around, using up gas, inquiring after possible work, finding none.  There are just too many of them.  “Okies,” they are called.  They themselves do not know what that means, but for native Californians it is synonymous with “lazy freeloading invader.”  When I first read the novel, things kept running through my mind like, “Okay, things have to get better soon.  They’ll get there, find work, buy a house, and the American Dream will be realized in all of its bountiful glory.  The End.  Yay!” I won’t spoil anything with specific details, but suffice it to say I was surprised—and made wrathful.

The trials faced by the Joad family, and countless other families like them just trying to find honest labor and a sense of purpose, made me question how, in a country like ours, such a situation could even have been allowed to exist.  “These are human beings just trying the best they can! Cut them some slack! They have dreams just like you! Why won’t anyone help them? How can this be happening?” So ran my monkey mind as the Joads faced one trial after another. Their resilience in the face of ongoing disappointment and relentless hatred made me feel ashamed of any time I might have thought I had it rough.  They would get their hopes up, have those hopes shattered, and still get up the next day and keep going.  I admired them, I sympathized with them, and yet was powerless to help them (yes, they are fictional characters, I get that; but they had real life counterparts, and though conditions have changed, those counterparts are still out there).

I am no economist, and can’t explain the specific workings of the system that made it impossible for people like the Joads to succeed. They couldn’t either, and that’s one of the things that got to me.  Long ago, my father told me the story of a man who wanted a job in the physical plant of the university where he worked as a maintenance and construction supervisor.  The job opening was for a maintenance mechanic.  The man applying was very honest, telling my dad that he had no real skills related to the job as yet, but he would be one of the hardest working people there.  He would arrive early, stay late, and do whatever was asked of him without question.  He was a quick learner and would pick up the skills he needed through trial and error as he went.  My dad took a risk on him because he had an instinct that his applicant was a good man with a strong work ethic, and you can’t go wrong with that. That man worked there the rest of his life.  I actually had the opportunity to meet and work with him for a time.  My summer job during high school and college was working for the same department as a mechanical room cleaner.  I learned a lot about working hard and taking pride in that work from that man and others like him who were there.  So, should not a person with a strong work ethic, willingness and capacity to learn, and the desire to contribute positively to the world they are in be able to find the chance to do so? That’s why I kept thinking would happen to the Joads.  It didn’t turn out that way.

Not everyone may be wired to go to college, or have the ability to do so.  That doesn’t mean that they have no value to offer the society.  The true skills required to do the work that I do today were not acquired by studying theories in a textbook for five years; they were acquired by working hard, doing my best, failing, learning from the failures, and pressing on.  My first couple of years as an educator were brutal ones.  I was naive beyond measure, having some book smarts, but precious little street smarts. On more than one occasion (meaning daily), I thought that I wasn’t cut out for this work.  I dug in my heels, kept going back, kept making mistakes and learning from them, and refused to let the challenges defeat me.  True defeat only comes when you give up.  You win, or you learn.  During my darkest times, my father said, “In order to make a good sword, you have to put it through the fire.”  Only when we have suffered can we help those who suffer.  Now, I have never been through anything remotely close to what the Joads went through, or any of the families who lived through the Dust Bowl and its associated tragedies, but I saw part of myself in them.  They were just plain, simple, hard working people willing to do whatever they had to do.  Shouldn’t that merit being given the opportunity to succeed and flourish?

Something I have discovered is the great spiritual fulfillment that comes with helping others who are less fortunate than ourselves. Novels such as The Grapes of Wrath serve to remind us that those people are out there and they still need that help.  Some may indeed be lazy and not willing to work, but the vast majority likely just need the opportunity to show others that they have something of value to contribute if they could just be given the chance.  It is my hope that the students with whom I work go on to serve others in their immediate spheres of influence.  Many will indeed go on to serve on much larger scales, but as long as they don’t forget the lessons that the works we study offer them, all of them will, with luck, remain wrathful at the injustice of those with potential not being given the opportunity to put it to use.

Always remember that there is someone out there who needs your help today. That help might be nothing more than a hug or genuinely listening to them.  There is a quote attributed to Plato that reads, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  Some versions of this quote end in the words, “…you know nothing about.” Don’t think that your problems are greater than everyone else’s.  Two days ago, as I was out for a morning walk, I noticed a sentence written in sidewalk chalk scrawled across the center of the street.  It was written in a child’s script, and it said, “There are people who would love to have your bad days.”  Yes there are.  They are the Joads of today.

As Spiritual Naturalists, we do not give credence to supernatural explanations for the workings of the universe.  There may or may not be an existence that follows this one.  For me, the jury is out on that.  As there may well not be, let’s work to make our time in this world as endurable as possible for as many as we can.  Let’s work to turn our wrath to joy, for ourselves and others.


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