Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Kyle Herrington
In my (heavily biased) opinion, there is no author who captures the paradox, grace, and heartache of American life better than Flannery O’Connor. Though she wrote her novels and short stories in the mid-1900s, her stories paint an honest and stark reality of the human person, who remains the same regardless of the calendar. I often feel O’Connor is holding up a mirror to society and saying “Look at yourself," and what we see is ugly and hateful; it is also tinged with grace and hope.
Mining her work for political policies is foolish and would do an injustice to her art, but O’Connor explicitly was writing about the human person, and we are political animals. Her stories are about people and their actions and consequences, and so it is they can be an awakening to our need for the “revolution of the heart” which Dorothy Day called for. We see this call to awakening in any number of her works: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” and its message about the image of God being imprinted on all people even if they are seen as freaks; “The Displaced Person” examining prejudice to new people. Today I want to focus on the short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which is a specific short story and also the title of one of her collections of short stories.
In “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, O’Connor writes about a cast of characters all familiar to us both in literature and real life: a white mother stuck dreaming of the past glory days; her son repulsed by his mother’s prejudice; an African-American woman tired of the condescending treatment of her white neighbors; and a sweet child indifferent to the sins and exhaustion the adults suffer as they trudge through the world. The story unfolds as Julian and his mother take the bus to her exercise class at the city Y. O’Connor wrote specifically about the South, and this particular story takes place around the time the buses were desegregated. Julian, the son, is deeply resentful of his mother for her prejudice against African-Americans. Julian views himself as an enlightened one: he's gone to college, prides himself on looking forward, and thinks he is free of yesterday's prejudice. His resentment is heightened because he knows his mother has sacrificed to provide for him. He despises his mother’s “glory days” attitude, yet he admittedly lives in his own mind as well:
"This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him. From it he could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration from without. It was the only place where he felt free of the general idiocy of his fellows. His mother had never entered it but from it he could see her with absolute clarity."
This particular bus trip offers Julian the opportunity to show his mother how wrong she is: “There was in him an evil urge to break her spirit.” Once on the bus, Julian tries to engage with a well-dressed African-American man, just to show his mother how different he is from her, even though the man has no interest in engaging with him. As the bus rolls along, an African-American mother gets on the bus with her four-year old son. Julian salivates at this opportunity, hoping the woman will sit next to his mother. To Julian’s frustration, the woman sits next to him and her little son climbs next to Julian’s mother. Julian’s mother loves all children so immediately smiles at the child, yet she looks at Julian with resentment. Julian is startled to find his mother “and the woman had, in a sense, swapped sons. Though his mother would not realize the symbolic significance of this, she would feel it. His amusement showed plainly on his face.” Additionally, his mother and the African American woman have on the same green hat. Julian is ecstatic with the opportunity.
Unfortunately for Julian’s scheming, the little boy, we learn his name is Carver, is attracted to Julian’s mother and smiles at her. Carver’s mother yanks him across the aisle to herself, but Carver scurries back to “his love”. Julian realizes the opportunity for a “lesson” has been lost. Carver’s mother becomes angrier because of her son's misbehavior, and places the child next to her, in between herself and Julian. In a sweet moment, little Carver “put his hands in front of his face and peeped at Julian's mother through his fingers. ‘I see yoooooooou!’ she said and put her hand in front of her face and peeped at him.” Carver’s mother is annoyed and slaps his hands down. The reader can feel the tension rising, while the young boy is immune.
Finally they reach their stop, and they find the African-American mother and son are getting off at the same stop. Julian is horrified because he know his mother will want to give the child a nickle, “The gesture would be as natural to her as breathing.” As they get off, Julian tries to take his mother’s pocketbook and tells her not to try and give the boy a nickle, but Julian’s mother refuses. Carver’s mother gets off the bus and proceeds to move quickly down the street, but Julian’s mother catches up to them. She could only find a penny in her purse, but she still wants to offer it to the little boy.
“Oh little boy!” Julian's mother called and took a few quick steps and caught up with them just beyond the lamppost. “Here’s a bright new penny for you,” and she held out the coin, which shone bronze in the dim light.
The huge woman turned and for a moment stood, her shoulders lifted and her face
frozen with frustrated rage, and stared at Julian’s mother. Then all at once she seemed to
explode like a piece of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much.
Julian saw the black fist swing out with the red pocketbook. He shut his eyes and cringed
as he heard the woman shout, “He don't take nobody’s pennies!” When he opened his
eyes, the woman was disappearing down the street with the little boy staring wide-eyed
over her shoulder. Julian’s mother was sitting on the sidewalk.
“I told you not to do that,” Julian said angrily. “I told you not to do that!”
Julian angrily tries to help his mother up and says “I hopes this teaches you a lesson”. His mother gets up and walks the opposite direction of the Y. She looks at Julian as if she does not know who he is. His mother says that she is not going to the Y but is going home instead. “Julian followed along, his hands behind him. He saw no reason to let the lesson she had had go without backing it up with an explanation of its meaning.” He berates his mother, saying that African-American woman was “the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies” and that his mother’s old world is gone. His mother plows ahead. Julian asks if his mother does not want to just take the bus home, but she continues down the street just saying she wants to go home.
Finally, Julian grabs her and says they are not moving any further. He looks into her face and does not recognize her. “'Tell Grandpa to come get me,’ she said. He stared, stricken. ‘Tell Caroline to come get me,’ she said.” Caroline was her African American nanny when Julian’s mother was young and Julian mother’s grandfather has been long dead. Julian lets out a cry of “Mother!” as his mother tries to walk away but crumbles to the ground. Julian rushes towards her, rolls her over and sees the stroke-like symptoms that have distorted her face. He tries to call for help but his voice is thin and the darkness of the street seems to envelop them." The story concludes, “The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
It's rare to encounter a story where you identify with every character, and not merely because you want to identify with them; rather, you recognize yourself in the mirror. At one time or another you have been Julian, resentful of the people or institutions which are unjust but gave you everything. You have relished the opportunity to rub peoples’ noses in their just desserts. You have been the African-American woman, tired of condescension and angry at those trying to interfere in your life. You have been Julian’s mother, nostalgic for the 'glory days' and not living in the real world. All of these characters are flawed.
But to be flawed is to be human, and these characters vibrate with humanity. They cannot be reduced to a political label or ideology. They are complicated, flawed images of God. Julian cannot see that he has created an alternative reality in which he is free from rebuke; his mother deserves to live with guilt, but not him. What a very dangerous place to find one's self! This is an especially tempting position to fall into on social media, where you are just looking at tiny picture. You cannot see the histories, emotions, families, hardship or joys of the real people. When we believe we are free from reproach we become tyrants, losing the ability to see we, too, are as flawed as around us. The longer this mindset lingers, the quicker one becomes the monster so hated.
There are numerous other lessons from the story but I think they speak for themselves, and I am eager to hear what everyone thinks in the comment section on Facebook.
Politics is about community and community involves conflict because we are flawed, limited human beings. The challenge is how we engage this conflict: do we berate people and bully them into submission or do we engage them and seek to walk with them to a better understanding of reality? One is demonic, the other is sacred.
Tara Ann Thieke