Compassion vs. Cruelty: Why You Should Read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

This afternoon, sometime before dinner, you will turn on the evening news.

A suited-man seated behind a desk welcomes you.

“Good evening.”

Then, without warning, he launches into a blitzkrieg of stories:

Murder, mudslides, deadly carnival rides, Constitutional decay, children trapped in hot cars and how North Korea is stockpiling nuclear warheads like canned goods before finally, mercifully, the fine-suited man looks at you, smiles and says, “We’ll be right back with more news at 4.”

A little unnerved, you linger by the TV, catching your breath, hoping that when the fine-suited man returns, he returns with lighter news.

But he doesn’t.

There’s a tractor-trailer stuffed with dead Mexicans in Texas,  a love-triangle gone wrong in a central Pennsylvania and OJ Simpson was just granted parole in Nevada.

You shake your head and hold your stomach and wonder, while listening to your children play in other room, if the world is purging itself of compassion like its been purging itself of fossil fuels for all these years.

Eleven years ago Cormac McCarthy published The Road.

Meet with immediate praise, The Road won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, scored a sacred spot on Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club that same year and in 2008 Entertainment Weekly named The Road  the most important book of the last 25 years.

 

The Premise

The Road is a parable that narrates the harrowing journey of a father and son as they move cautiously through a post-apocalyptic America.

It’s “cold enough to crack stones”, gray snow falls from a gray sky, the man-made world has been charred and destroyed and food is achingly scarce. So scarce, people have resorted to cannibalism.

At 1:17 the clocks stopped. Followed by “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” then everything turned to ash.

McCarthy never reveals the origin of the cataclysm because the novel is not concerned with how the world came to ruins.

It’s concerned about the state of morality in a post-apocalyptic world.

And the father, who is unnamed to highlight the universality of the book, is crossed, like we are, as he attempts to raise his child to be decent and civil in an indecent and uncivilized world.

Son: We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
Father: No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
Yes.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

Why am I such a fan?

Aside from McCathy’s breathtaking prose, which teeter on the edge of absolute poetry,

“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”

The Road forces its characters and its readers to weigh the costs of both compassion and cruelty.

That moral divide of, “Do I dehumanize others for my own survival?”

The cannibals have resorted to dehumanization to fill their stomachs with food. Yet in doing so, they are selfishly killing humanity’s chances of survival.

McCarthy parallels such selfish cruelty with the father’s heroic attempts to teach his son why compassion, more than cruelty, is necessary for humanity’s survival.

Compassion, like cruelty is a human instinct. Take the French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle, who recently died while saving two children from drowning.

Two children she did not know.

Cruelty is the easier of the two instincts.

Compassion requires more patience, more commitment. Compassion requires selflessness, a smothering of your own ego to quell the burdens of others so that they may heal and reciprocate such compassion to others.

And, based on the closing pages of the book, it’s the reciprocation of compassion that will renew the world.

The Road as a Guide to Parenting

You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were.”

You will never find The Road waiting on the shelves in the Parenting section of a bookstore. But beyond the terse, dystopian, survival story it’s about how to raise a child in the bleakest of hours.

Read the dedication page.

McCarthy dedicates The Road to his then 7 year old son John Francis.

In his interview with Oprah, McCarthy calls his son the coauthor of the book. Because many of the conversations in the book were based on real conversations McCarthy had with his own son.

McCarthy has said that The Road is everything he wants to teach his son about growing up, about life, about being “a good guy.”

The father continually tells his son, that no matter what, “You must carry the fire.”

Yes, the fire is literal–the boy needs the fire for warmth and to cook but fire is metaphorical for compassion and love.

Because, the father believes it’s the fire that will spring the boy’s survival.

And I couldn’t agree more.

As a parent of nine years, I’m starting to understand the weight of both my words and actions of my children.

I’m starting to understand that my words and actions are etched in their soft walls, like cave drawings, artifacts, maps that offer understanding and direction to the world that lurks outside.

It’s a terrifying thought to entertain– but the foundation of their little ideology is built upon what I say and do.

The Road’s Call to Action

The Road isn’t about the apocalypse. It’s about love. It’s about having the courage to be decent in indecent times.

It may seem that compassion is an outdated practice yet The Road argues compassion is as primal as cruelty. That compassion, not cruelty, will restore order to the fallen world.

The Road is bleak. It will test your spirit. It will make you question the fate of humanity.

But so will the evening news.

Be well,

Jay

It’s called “The Alchemist” and you should read it.

If I could have a conversation with my 30 year old self it would go like this:

“It’s called The Alchemist and you should read it.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re 30.  Because you’re foolish. Because you’re playing it safe. Because you think time is your friend. You yearn for the wrong things. You make half-hearted choices. You feel obligated to adopt people’s opinions as your truth because you desperately fear rejection. You want to live the easy life and expect hard-won rewards. You take too much for granted. You’ve failed to understand that all choices, even the small ones, ripple with consequence and even choosing not to choose has consequences. You should read The Alchemist because you’re going to father two more children and you’re going to invest your money into grad school then you’re going to get sick, chronically sick, a sickness will break you physically, test you spiritually and on a cold December day you’ll wring your hands and look into the soft eyes of your children and shut your laptop and dropout of grad school and be more lost then you’ve ever been and it’s only then, as you wade through some of the most draining, exhausting, terrifying hours, days, weeks, months, years that you will learn that discomfort and pain are necessary for growth. That your scars, those jagged stories, knitted with conflict which tattoo your limbs and your internal organs are signs, are omens from a higher power that give your life meaning and purpose.”

My 30 year old self looks down, kicks dust for awhile and as if talking to his toes, “What’s the book again?”

“The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.”

The silence balloons into something big and palpable between us.

30 year old self turns up his eyes, offers that familiar, coy smile only found in photo albums now. He’s young and thin and clueless.

“So this Alchemist book…”, he crosses his arms and leans his shoulders back, “… can I get the Sparknotes.”

The Alchemist is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

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Written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, the anniversary edition is prefaced with Coelho describing how The Alchemist sold only 1 copy in the first week, how it took 6 months for a second copy to sell (both copies were bought by the same person!) to selling more then 65 million copies and translated into 80 different languages, a Guinness Record for most translated book by a living author.

The premise of The Alchemist is simple: A poor sheep herder, Santiago, decides to sell his flock to go questing across the Arabic dessert for a treasure supposedly located near the pyramids of Egypt.

Of course, what he learns about himself, about life and happiness and love and truth on the journey are more valuable then any extravagant treasure he could find.

Why am I such a fan?

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Because Coelho implores a very simple, parabolic style to tell Santiago’s story, which is essentially the story of humankind.

It’s about decision making.

It’s about following your dreams.

It’s choosing to live a life that gives your heart and soul meaning and purpose.

It’s about finding your true self or as Coelho calls it “Personal Legend”

Making a decision, taking action is really hard.

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I always thought the older, more mature I got the easier decision making would be. Not true. In fact, I’m learning the older you get the more things         (money, children, health, job security) there are, the harder decisions become.

As adults, we so fear being wrong. We yearn for the right decision. We foolishly think the right decision will unlock this magical, unicorn life that we dream of.

The Alchemist argues that we can live a good life by avoiding decision making and risk taking.

We can earn money, own a house, raise a family, make friends and host parties. We can have all the magazine comforts of a “good life”. However, the “good life” will always fall short of the one we imagine for ourselves.

This “good life”, the cautious life will always prevent us from achieving our Personal Legend.

And this “good life” will gnaw us, dog us, press us and leave us with a hollow heart that beats and beats and beats as we stagger through a desert life, a life that mercifully ends with our inevitable death.

The Alchemist reminds us it’s the easy path, the lighted and well-worn path that has been traversed by so many souls is the far more dangerous path than the mysterious, unblazoned path.

5 More Takeaways

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  • Every human learns of their destiny as a child. As a child we play, we embrace our passions, however we age and the world’s opinions infiltrate our heart and we abandon our destiny and replace what we really want with what other people want or us.
  • We must be aware of signs/omens. They offer clarity and direction.
  • Our choices have consequences that stretch beyond our knowledge and our life time.
  • Our destiny, our ultimate goal requires endless suffering.
  • Suffering for our destiny is better/more heroic/more rewarding/more badass then living a safe life.

5 Favorite Quotes… (pictures from my book to prove I actually read it and didn’t opt for Sparknotes this time)

The Alchemist’s Call to Action

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Life is a noisy ride. Whether we’re ready for it or not, we will hear everyone’s opinions about ourselves.

If we adopt what other’s think of us as our truths, we will come to hate ourselves. We will live, as the American quote machine Henry David Thoreau described, “a life of quiet desperation.”

The Alchemist’s simple narrative style amplifies the books simple message, no matter the noise, no matter the costs–follow your destiny.

It’s a simple message, one we once understood yet we aged, got comfortable, we vilified change and life’s simple message got twisted in something incredibly complicated.

Be well,

Jay

My Summer Reading in Review (2016)

Now that the sun has set on yet another summer, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on my summer reading endeavors. As usual I entered the summer with pale skin, a full heart and  intentions of reading six books over 10 weeks.

But then life happened.

I failed to read my intended six books and only read four. But don’t fret the summer wasn’t a complete bust. I did things. I got that tan, finished fourth in my fantasy baseball league, created this website, watched hours of Impractical Jokers and attempted the Ney- Ney.

Here is a quick summer reading recap:

1. July, July (Tim O’Brien)-  I’ll admit I’m a huge O’Brien fan and have enjoyed everything he has written. July ,July detracts a bit from the war-time violence O’Brien dispels in The Things They Carried and In the Lake in the Woods yet J,J still explores O’Brien’s common theme– the haunting nature of the past– yet in a more pedestrian and domestic way.

Favorite Line- “They agreed that human life mostly erased itself the instant it was lived. they agreed , too , that out of their own combined time on earth, which only amounted to more than a century, only a few scant hours survived in memory.”

2.Just Kids (Pattie Smith)-If your  into memoirs or considering writing your own this is a must read. Smith  examines her years as a struggling artist and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in such a vivid and subtle way that at times this book reads like poetry. Smith puts on a clinic on how to effectively  mix sensory imagery and  simple yet haunting sentences.

Favorite Line: “I crave honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself.”

3.The Mysteries of Pittsburgh -(Michael Chabon) – Chabon scares me. His vocabulary is more expansive than mine. His sentences are complex yet polished and his thematic examination of masculine sexual identity takes some testicular fortitude to write about. What I liked most of Mysteries was the unexpected. Maybe I’m naive but I didn’t see the twist coming. And when it happened I had to put the book down few a few days so I could digest. Stylistically and thematically, Mysteries may be  the closest thing to The Catcher in the Rye that I’ve ever read.

Favorite Line: “No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past , and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.”

4.The Art of Work (Jeff Goins)- I found Jeff Goins on Twitter. I was soon turned on to his website and then to his new book The Art of Work. Goins is a self-help author who in The Art of Work combines amazing stories of average people chasing down their dreams with his own insight and experience.  This book is great for any adult who is looking to get something more out of their life… which, I got to believe that is all of us.

Favorite Line: “Life is too short to do what doesn’t matter, to waste your time on things that don’t amount to much. What we all want is to know our time on earth has meant something.”