Every life shares the burden of meaning

In her New York Times essay “The Book of Books” Marilynne Robinson argues that the Bible is “the model for more art and thought than those who live within its influence will ever know.” Even one of the most ardent atheists of our time, the late Christopher Hitchens, acknowledged the profound literary influence of this book, particularly the King James version. In Robinson’s words, “these references demonstrate a well of special meaning to be drawn upon…an obscure death can become a martyrdom; a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace.”

Mahmoud appears in the office with four of his five children. Lutfi, his 6-year-old son, complained of an earache at school this afternoon. The nurse called Mahmoud to come and collect his son, and so Mahmoud is here to have his son’s ear looked at.

I first met Mahmoud eight years ago, when he brought his first-born child, a daughter, to the office. At that time a recent immigrant from Palestine, Mahmoud drove a taxi cab for a living. He scrimped and managed to amass enough money to bring his wife to the states. They lived in a rough section of town where the rents were cheap.

Mahmoud never missed a well-child appointment. He always appeared on time. He never questioned the need to have the children immunized and always complied with medical recommendations. The children were rarely sick. If they did fall ill, Mahmoud nursed them through their sickness at home.

When the children got their shots, Mahmoud would always hug them and quietly recite simple prayers or verses from the Koran while I plunged the hypodermic needle into their flesh.

During one office visit Mahmoud pointed out an extensive rash on one of the boys. Linear papules covered the child’s arms and legs. The lesions had the textbook appearance of bedbug bites. “We all have them,” Mahmoud admitted. “My children scratch in the night. The apartment is infested with them.”

“Have you notified the landlord?” I asked him.

Mahmoud shrugged his shoulders. “I have. He sent someone to spray, but they keep coming back.”

“Maybe you need to look for another place to live.”

“Believe me, I know; but everything is so expensive. Even now I pay good money for this apartment, and it is a pit.”

“Have you looked into Section 8?” I asked, referring to the state subsidized housing program for families.

“My name has been on the list for years. And yet, I have known some people further down on the list who have hired an attorney to represent them. They pay money and somehow they get a good apartment.” He shook his head. “There is something wrong with the system.”

This was not the first time I had heard this.

“If you play fair, you never get ahead—but,” he said, “I play fair. It is the right thing to do.”

I thought about the great mass of humanity. We struggle to survive. We clamor over each other in an attempt to ascend the mountain. Those who game the system might reach the summit long before those who don’t, but perhaps they are the lesser for it.

“So, what will you do?” I asked him.

“I will do what I have to do.  By God’s grace I will do what I can.”

The first shall be last, the last first.

“Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them,” Robinson writes. “Ordinary lives are invested with a kind of significance that justifies, or requires, its endless iterations of the commonplace…however minor these might seem in the world’s eyes.”


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