The first rule in living introspectively is to avoid falling into rapt contemplation of ourselves. I’m sure you’ve met the kind of person, or seen him in Woody Allen movies, who treats life as fodder for his therapy or his autobiography. Breathe easy — I won’t do that here.
But what I would like to do is recount the story, as best I can understand it midstream, of how grace has worked on me.
I am a filmmaker and an activist, a husband and a father of seven, a worker on behalf of the most embattled, most important cause on earth: the dignity of the human person. By “dignity” I don’t mean harrumphing self-importance, and by “human person” I don’t mean some dry philosophical abstraction.
I mean that I see something very unusual in the people whom I encounter in my areas of activism: a 57-year-old ex-factory worker living on the streets of Los Angeles; a 15-year-old girl who was sexually exploited by a 30-year-old drug dealer and is now carrying a child that the culture tells her to abort; an eleven-year-old Christian living in southern Darfur, whose community is being deprived of water because his family will not convert to Islam.
What I see in these people is the image of the infinitely powerful eternal spirit Whose essence is His existence, the God who strung the cosmos with galaxies. This is not a hallucination, a superstition, or a pious wish. It is something I see, as clearly as I can see the screen in front me now while I’m typing. And it’s my entire task in life to help more people, and finally the culture at large, to see this reality, too.
I was led to this epiphany by the nose, on the string of my own narcissism, through the medium of a murder.
I grew up with no particular religion, unless you count the influence of my grandfather, a zealously heterodox Scientologist. That left me a default agnostic and an unreflective relativist. I never studied the books we were assigned in school, and I paid the price in terms of my grades.
But I did read, and one work I came across was Kurt Vonnegut’s classic short story “Harrison Bergeron.” This pithy story imagines a future where absolute equality is imposed by a total State — which comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, weighing down talented athletes with sandbags, equipping intelligent people with brain-buzzing headgear to dumb them down, and hiding beautiful faces with hideous masks. The story’s hero, the teenager Harrison Bergeron, is handsome, brilliant, and rebellious, and at the climax he seizes a television studio to stage a magnificent, doomed revolt: He sloughs off the weights, tears off the mask, and issues a proclamation:
“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.
“Even as I stand here,” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened — I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”
Harrison uses his moment of absolute power not to harm anyone or avenge himself. Instead, he chooses a beautiful dancer, frees her of her weights and mask, and together they perform a single, exquisite dance — before the forces of equality seize the studio and shoot him dead.
I didn’t want to be Harrison Bergeron. I looked inside and knew that I already was. I was the Emperor. My sovereign self rejected the stale conventions that society tried to hang on me like crippling weights.
So I did the next logical thing: I started to read Ayn Rand. What I loved most among her works was the novella Anthem, whose suffocating, stagnant dystopia was surely an influence on Vonnegut’s (not to mention more recent young-adult classics such as The Hunger Games and The Giver). Anthem’s hero casts off the name imposed upon him, Equality 7-2521. He rejects the collectivist hive society that has abandoned progress and knowledge, and has forbidden the use of words such as “I,” “me,” and “mine.” He rediscovers electricity, renames himself Prometheus, and goes off into the wilderness with a beautiful spouse and fellow-rebel to found a new future in freedom.
My own life plan was starting to take its shape. I would use the mighty gifts with which fate had entrusted me in defense of freedom. I knew that the collective, the mob, was my mortal enemy — as was the God who allegedly said that I should sacrifice my reason and my ego.
Then something appalling happened. My unborn daughter was aborted without my knowledge or consent. (Or her mother’s consent — my teenage girlfriend’s father dragged her to the clinic.)
And everything changed. This person, who had been carelessly, recklessly murdered, had all the same dignity, grandeur, and significance that I had seen only in myself. Her death opened up for me a whole new moral world, one where every human being shone with radiance. And demanded protection. So I dived into human-rights work. I would avenge her death by promoting life — in every form. Each human being I saw now shone as a kind of mirror, reflecting the glory that I had seen first in myself, and then in my daughter.
I wanted to better understand this amazing thing, the human self, to know its powers, limits, and structure. I knew that its power and importance transcended the mere limits of matter. Rand had called this truth “axiomatic,” the self-evident starting point of moral reasoning. For me, it was more of a fact that I had experienced firsthand. I was an accidental, reluctant eyewitness to human dignity.
To learn more, I started reading Sartre. His plays’ heroes reject the stifling orthodoxies that press down from the past. They turn their backs on the herd and strike off boldly to face the truth. But as I read more deeply, I saw something disturbing. The following passage in Existentialism and Human Emotion cut me to the bone:
The existentialist . . . thinks it is very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him. There can no longer be an a priori Good since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there is only man. Dostoevsky said, “If God does not exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.
Rand’s axiom — that man is unique and important — was merely a dogma, the fruit of an act of faith. For Sartre, the self is really nothing — nothing at all. It is a crack or void in the vast, unconscious stuff of Being. Its vaunted dignity and freedom are only boasts made in a vacuum, where no sound can resonate. Even the freely chosen relationships of one self to another are really a dance of sadism and masochism, a power game whose stakes are finally zero, since “hell is other people.”
Sartre’s individual is an intrinsically lonely, power-hungry monad. No wonder that Sartre could make excuses for Joseph Stalin. The death of a million Sartrean selves really would be just a statistic, the winking out of nothings into Being, like matches dropped in the ocean. Such selves might as well be organized, equalized, collectivized, and rendered uniform, as the villains had done in Vonnegut and Rand. There was nothing sacred or special about anyone — not me, and not the girl whose death still haunted me.
And that was intolerable. The nonexistence of God was an insult to me. I could not reconcile it with my fundamental experience, the passionate joy I took every day in simply existing, the sense of purpose and joy that got me up in the morning — or the mystery of dignity that I saw in other people.
So I determined to find the One who was patiently leading me home. I was no longer merely an individual. I had blossomed into a person. And I knew what I had to do.
— Jason Scott Jones is a filmmaker, human-rights activist, and co-author of The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture of Life.