Opinions

Saying No to the Faustian Bargain

      This has been a semester of loss, both for me and for a number of my closest friends. Whether that loss came in the form of a death in the family, the ending of a dating relationship, faculty changeovers or even just the fading out of once-prominent friendships, loss routinely reared its ugly head within my community and within my own life. And as I celebrate my friends who are graduating at the end of this semester, I am painfully aware that for all the good that graduation holds, it also means yet another loss.

      A month or so ago, a professor of mine sent out an encouraging email on dealing with loss. In his email, he wrote about the classic tale of Faust’s bargain with the Devil. For those unfamiliar with the story, Faust agrees to surrender his soul if the Devil gives him one moment of such total happiness that he is contented enough to die. My professor mused that the real temptation here turns on our desire to freeze time, to possess a moment in a way that counteracts its transitory nature. Since reading that email, I’ve been thinking a lot about the greedy Faustian impulse to seize a moment with both hands, desperate to keep life from unfolding into new moments. As I think about my graduating friends, I recognize just how tempting this bargain is: Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup; how much more tempting is a moment of perfect happiness?

      In trying to read myself into the Faustian narrative, I asked myself, “Why not give the Devil the benefit of the doubt? Besides losing your soul, what is so wrong with the bargain?” As I reflected, here are some reasons I decided the bargain just isn’t worth it. First, the Faustian way of life means that any moment in which I could conceive of even one little tweak to add would be a moment I spurn in my quest for perfection. How many almost-but-not-quite moments would I ignore or rush through before I finally arrived at perfection? And how many people would I ignore or minimize as I sought only to seize that final moment with graduating seniors? The price of contentment with only that which is perfect means a loss of enjoyment of living life in all its imperfection. Second, I am not convinced that I can love my friends well if I am seeking to possess the moment rather than allowing the moment to be what it will be and simply remaining grateful for the time I did have once time has moved on. At the very least, it seems to me that when I’m at my most Faustian, I’m also at my most self-absorbed, so focused on trying to enjoy it all that I lose all attentiveness to my friends and their needs and desires. Third, I’m not sure that the Faustian bargain actually entails proper love for myself: after all, if my whole disposition is trying to freeze time, when time predictably continues on its way, I am left with yearning and impotent rage at my own lack of control, rather than an abiding gratitude that can look back on fond memories with thankfulness.

      The greatest Faustian sin is presumption.

      It is presumptuous to think that we can recognize perfection. It is presumptuous to think that we can or should be able to freeze time for our own gain regardless of how many good things the future holds for our friends and even for ourselves. Worse even, it is most damnably presumptuous to live without gratitude because it can lead us to think falsely that we somehow deserve these moments, when indeed every moment we have life is a gift of God.

      But if I have been guilty of presumption, which is the chief of sins, I do not despair: for even at the end of the story, Faust is not quite outside the grace of God. So I repent. I have responded to loss by being presumptuous and ungrateful with the good still in my life. But I am thankful for my friends, both those graduating and those remaining with me, and I am thankful for this school, and I am thankful for the grace that God gives to us in each passing moment. And maybe, just maybe, that thankfulness is enough. Maybe there is beauty even in loss if only we can keep our eyes wide open and our vision attentive.

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