Saturday, June 11, 2011

When Life Hands You Lemons...Getting Serious

So, my attempt at a light-hearted contest for while I was out of town pretty much fell flat. It generated but one response in the comments section of the blog--a response which, I think, was an attempt to caricature what the response's author took to be my views on what we should do when confronted with an undesired and (at least at first blush) unpleasant aspect of reality.

But I also got a phone-in response from my friend and co-author John. While not the kind of playful or silly response I was originally envisioning, it deserves to be posted here. And of the two entries, it is the clear winner. So, here, then, is the winning response to my failed contest:
When life hands you lemons, do what the stellar opera soprano Rosa Ponselle--before whom the great conductor Arturo Toscanini once went down on his knees--did with lemons. She sucked on them before she performed as a tonic for her vocal cords. In other words, when life hands you lemons, find in those lemons that which is of God, and drink deeply of that.
Dare I invite other, more serious reflections of this sort? For my own reflection on what to do when life hands you "lemons," you can check out this post.


  1. Well, I think the actual proverb itself is idiotic, since lemons are fantastic things. They strengthen the immune system, they detoxify the body, they prevent kidney stones, and they're chock-full of nutrients. When added to food, they add a pleasant acidity and a delicious, irreplaceable flavour. They're amazingly versatile, and hold an important place in just about every major cuisine. And if you know someone with a lemon tree, they're abundant and free. So, there's really only one appropriate thing to do when life gives you lemons: say "thanks!". Ironically, about the only bad thing you can with lemons is to do what the proverb suggests and turn them into lemonade by drowning them in sugar.

    But being less literal about it, I think an appropriate response to "if life gives you [crapness]" is to say: "what did you expect?". Since when has life been all about roses and cotton candy? There's suffering, injustice and and misery all around us, and it's been like that since anyone can remember. There's brutal exploitation in our factory farms and slaughterhouses and inner-city brothels; there's systemic exploration and murder being perpetrated in distant lands by our corporations, governments, and militaries, and there are large portions of disappointment, heartbreak and loneliness that most of us must endure as we grow up. The proverbial 'lemons' are everywhere, and the only people who are surprised to see them are the naive or the delusional.

    I'm not suggesting that we get all fatalistic and doomsday about it. I think we should all aspire to happiness, and I think many of us are able to find it. I myself have quite a happy life overall, and consider myself very blessed and fortunate. But, like everyone, I have some 'lemons' too, and it hurts me to see that there are many who have many more 'lemons' than me.

    Lemons are simply a part of life, and a part of our reality. In fact, they're such an integral part of life that the question "what to do when life gives you lemons?" is really just a different phrasing of the question: "how should we live our lives?". Which is obviously one of the most extensively discussed questions in history, and not one I'm about to answer in a blog comment.

    I'd say that step one, however, is to be mindful of the fact that 'lemons' aren't occasional aberrations that interrupt the normal flow of life and need to be anxiously dealt with like a wine stain on a carpet. Rather, they are an integral, ubiquitous PART of the flow of life, and need to be understood as such.

  2. Oops - "systemic exploration" should have been "systemic exploitation" :D

  3. David,

    Some good thoughts. An extension of your point to issues central to this blog might run as follows: Metaphorical lemons are such an inescapable part of our existence that we cannot realistically get away with pretending they are not there--nor should we. Some theists engage in just this sort of pretense--trying to avoid the problem of evil by minimizing the grim realities of existence or "baptizing" them (representing them as actually good--something I talk about here, among other places).

    But these solutions are, we might say, dishonest. Evil is real and ubiquitous--a truth that must be squarely faced by those who believe reality is ultimately the product of a transcendent benevolence.

  4. David and Eric,

    I would say that even though individual lemons are bitter, a life without lemons would be tasteless.

  5. And I really do not think that evil is real, at least not real in the sense that God is real.

    If God is the summum bonum (not only in the sense that God Him/Herself is perfect in all respects but also in the sense that all good is good in that it reflects God) and if the realization in one’s life of that fundamental goodness can only be real when it is result of actively following a path of self-transcendence which is only possible at the presence of evil, then there is something fundamentally good in evil too. I sometimes think of creation as a work of art, say a painting by Rembrandt. If one focuses in some small part of it then one may experience it as pointless and ugly, but it is not really like this because it forms part of an excellent whole. The excellence of the painting as a whole would not be possible if Rembrandt would try to make any small part of the painting beautiful or meaningful too. In any creation the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

    Indeed in the context of the problem of evil I think that it is mistake for a theist to believe that necessarily no gratuitous evils exist. If a creation in which gratuitous evils do obtain is greater than a creation in which no gratuitous evils obtain then God is justified in actualizing the former.

    In what sense may a creation be “greater” than another? I believe one important sense is concerning its telos, the final state to which it is directed. And it is here where I clearly see the reason for a creation with evils in it. After all a final state where all created persons are with God by their own will and after having overcome much evil is clearly more valuable than a final state where created persons have received their presence with God at the cheap. But does this idea justify the existence of individual gratuitous evils, indeed of unredeemable evils? Can we conceive that a creation with many individually gratuitous evils, and even with individually unredeemable evils, be of the greatest kind of all? I think we can if we can see that only in such a creation is it possible for created persons to trust and love God even beyond reason, even beyond self-love. Only in such a creation is true self-transcendence possible. And I say such a creation is the greatest one in the sense that if a rational being were given the opportunity to choose in what kind of world she would prefer to be created in, the rational choice would be to choose that kind. For it is ultimately in the realization that God is justified to us that one becomes justified to God. And here we find another good which comes out of evil: To really understand - to realize in one´s own being - the reason for evil and how at home we are at creation becomes a source of the deepest joy, a joy so great that suffering becomes toothless and evil becomes powerless. It is a great world where evil becomes the source of so much freedom and joy.