My favorite moment from the film “The Verdict” was when Paul Newman, as a morally bankrupt lawyer who’s finally repossessed his own conscience by taking on Boston’s medical and Roman Catholic establishment in a quixotic malpractice suit, refuses to do what common sense dictates: settle out of court, wait — as his friend advises — for another, less risky, case on which to rebuild his reputation. “There is no other case,” Newman says. “This is the only case.”
The only case. The only moment. This is it! That’s the burden and joy of being fully human: how easy it is once we admit to ourselves how hard it is. The eternity we all sense as possibility within ourselves, by whatever name — God, love, justice — is always on the other side of the door we’re most afraid to open. Yet to open it or not is the only real choice. There is no other door, no other case. The mind plays with the future like silly putty; it’s all clay isn’t it? Yes. And choice is the kiln, offering the only real possibility of being other than eternally half-baked; that’s another kind of fire, advertised as freedom. It’s hell.
I make my own, like everyone. The light doesn’t punish us for turning from it; we’re free to choose darkness, too. If my heart is a cloud, ready to burst, and I put on a raincoat and sit inside, who’s to blame that I’m sweaty and uncomfortable? I know that crying washes me, but I’m free not to. The other night I wanted to cry: at a concert, surrounded by old friends, old loves, the old loves of old loves, old fears, I aged. Every time my heart closed, rather than opened, to a painful memory, some unfinished business, an ancient wind came up in me, blowing melancholy through the grasses of memory, bending the spine, while the moon gathered clouds around itself, ashamed. Here was a choice: between the sadness that always howls outside — its indistinct whine confusing, depressing, making the whole world grey — and the pain of the cloud finally bursting, sharp as the sting of rain, never confusing because it speaks not in words but in the language of the body, and it tells me where I am: separate. And I know, too, what the next choice is: to stay there — in this forlorn little cabin I keep pretending is my home, high atop the mountain of forgetfulness — or to reach for the door. To enter my real home, to forgive myself this dream of separation, becomes my only choice — hardly the world’s idea of freedom, but every time I make it, it’s heaven.