The Dignity of Man

Roger Angell - Palisades, New York
Broadcast during the 1950s
Themes: fear
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I state what I believe with seriousness, but with many doubts. I have doubts because I am still a young man, and sureness in the young is unwise and unbecoming. And this is not, it seems to me, a time of certainty, of faiths easily espoused and firmly held. I suspect that this is a good thing, because I am a great believer in skepticism. I think that a man should grasp a belief warily and carry it gingerly. He should always be ready to test its worth against experience and to abandon it without regret if it begins to look ugly, expensive or cumbersome.

I am, as I said, a young man. I cannot look back, as the generation just ahead of me can, to a quieter and less nervous world. Ever since I can remember, my world has been the one we all know so well today. A place of war and a fear of war. A place of incredible speed and incredible change. A world where the most incredible event of all has been our horrified realization of our own weakness, our lack of civilization, our ignorance and the inhuman violence which we human beings are capable of. If this world is not a jungle, it is often as dark as one, and as frightening.

Before too many years, I’m afraid, there will be few of us left who will be able to remember a time of stability and accepted values, accepted peace. And yet, even when this happens, I will refuse to believe that this state of cruelty and fright must be a permanent one, that this is the best which man can attain. I will insist then, as I do now, that man is capable of the heights, but he is with infinite slowness and infinite mistakes, edging out of the darkness.

I believe it is a mistake to take ourselves too seriously as fully developed, fully rational, modern men. It is only dark now, I think, because we are still in a primeval place. All our history, our true greatness, our civilization lie ahead of us. I believe in mankind.

I base my belief somewhat upon history. I base it more on man himself as I see him. Once in a while, in my dealings with other men, an astonishing thing happens. Something I cannot get out of my head. Suddenly I see straight into a man and find, to my shock, only myself there. This is a rare moment, because men do not often give themselves away, only by accident or in times of great pain and happiness. In that moment, if I dare to look, I see in any man my own desires, my deeply hidden beliefs, my need for love, my inner seriousness, and my hope. This moment is a lightning flash in an unlit room that suddenly illuminates all. After it is gone, I still see, pressed on my eyes for a few instants, the shape, the bright highlights and the true vivid colors of the dark room in which I sit. In that moment, the dignity of man is an almost visible thing.

Finally, I am a believer in children. I love children, it seems to me, because they have not yet learned to hide their humanity, to protect it behind words and customs, and lonely fears and suspicions. I love it in them because it is visible, and seeing it, I make great plans for them and for all mankind.

During World War II, Roger Angell spent four years in the Army Air Force. He later became a longtime writer and fiction editor for The New Yorker, where he penned essays about baseball, and nurtured writers including John Updike and Garrison Keillor.