Escape Clause

Rod Serling and Jesus of Nazareth had at least two things in common.  Both were Jewish.  And both were marvelous storytellers.  Both men knew that we can talk about ideas and rules all day long, and these things can be important.  But if we want people’s attention, the way to get it is through parables.  Human beings love stories.

One of humanity’s great skills, of course, is abstract thinking.  Many of our modern advantages come from the abstractions of scientific and mathematical thought, translated into the benefits of practical technology.  But abstraction always carries with it the risk of becoming unmoored from flesh and blood reality.

When we lump real persons into abstractions of class, or race, or religion – as we sometimes need to do, the better to understand our problems as a society – we disincarnate them.  We abstract them as impersonal data.  Abstract problems invite abstract solutions.  And in the wrong hands that can lead, and has led, to final solutions like the Gulag and the Holocaust.

Parables and stories work in the opposite way.  They’re incarnational.  They entertain and teach indirectly.  But they do it by capturing the experiences of real or imagined individual persons.  At their best, stories tell us truths, not merely facts.  They help us see why we’re alive, how we should live, and what the world means.

The strength of the stories that Rod Serling wrote for The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery was their grasp of the humor, terror, ambiguity, and beauty of being human.  For Serling, good and evil were real.  Both had consequences.

One of his more memorable parables was “Escape Clause.”  The plot is very simple.  Serling’s main character is a man in perfect health.  But he’s an obsessive hypochondriac.  He’s terrified of death.  He’s greedy to live forever.  So one evening a “Mr. Cadwallader” – the Devil – shows up and makes him an offer that’s hard to refuse: eternal life for the modest price of his soul.  There’s even an escape clause.  Should the man tire of immortality at any point, the devil will gladly help him die.  As to what might happen after he dies: Well, why focus on the fine print of something that may never happen?

The man has no intention of ever dying, so it’s a no-brainer deal.  To test the bargain, he starts throwing himself in front of trains and arranging other fatal accidents.  He always survives unscathed.  At first this is fun and, thanks to the insurance settlements, lucrative.  But gradually it gets stale.

The man’s death-defying stunts get increasingly extreme.  Eventually he plans to jump off the top of his high-rise building as a new thrill.  His wife, more and more frightened by his eccentric behavior, tries to stop him.  In a tussle, she accidentally falls to her death.  But the man sees this as an opportunity.  He’ll plead guilty to first-degree murder.  He’ll get the electric chair.  And he’ll “ride the lightning” as many times as the state tries to kill him.  It’ll be great laughs.

Except for one awkward detail.  The court doesn’t cooperate.  It sentences him to life in prison without parole: an endless, gray, “living death” in a six-by-ten foot space.  And Mr. Cadwallader shows up in his cell that evening with the bargain’s escape clause – and to collect on his side of the contract.

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The moral of the story is obvious:  We’re never as smart as we think we are, and we’re usually less prudent than we need to be.  It’s a fact we may want to ponder this Independence Day.

We’re the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history. Humility, though, is not our strong suit.  A deep reservoir of good remains in America, with many good people working hard to preserve it.  But reality can be cruel, and it hasn’t been suspended on our behalf.

We’re never “independent” of the consequences of our appetites, our assumptions and our actions.  There’s no convenient escape clause, no quick-fix solution, to problems we’ve behaved ourselves into.  The devil will have his due.  And he’s having it now.

We’re living through a summer of quarantines, COVID confusion, toxic election politics, and bitter racial conflict.  These issues understandably demand our focus, and it’s a dangerous, weirdly biblical time.  The country’s spirit of frustration is heavy and thick, like humidity before a storm.

There’s a curious quality of theater to the current wave of street demonstrations, monument desecrations, public confessions of guilt, news media hysteria, official cowardice, the irrelevance of the Church to the angry young, and Big Tech’s shoveling money at organizations committed to upending their economic system.

The wind is strong.  I find myself bouncing from fear, to fury, to emotional fatigue.  And there’s a small part of me, and I’m not alone, that longs irrationally for a purifying fire: Burn it all down, and start over.  “The worse, the better” – the line so often (and wrongly) attributed to Lenin – starts to make sense.  But that road leads into very dark corners of the heart.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Those words of a very different kind of revolutionary are worth praying over this July 4.

As a nation we’re neither as good as our pride imagined, nor as bad as America’s chronic haters – their name is Legion – want us to believe.  We’re simply another nation in the stream of time, with extraordinary strengths and some ugly weaknesses; gifted with things to contribute to the human experience, and captive to the sins of our own making.

So when we sing “God Bless America” this year, we need to really mean it, because conversion, beginning with the conversion of our own hearts, is the only real “escape clause.”

 

*Image: Flag by Jasper Johns, 1954 [Museum of Modern Art, New York]

Francis X. Maier

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate at the University of Notre Dame.