Goodness Doesn’t Just Happen

Rebecca West - Buckinghamshire, Great Britain
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, October 16, 2009
Rebecca West
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

In her life and her writings, Dame Rebecca West says she tries to live out her beliefs in freedom, the rule of law, the importance of God and the exercise of religion as a way to connect to God.

Themes: love, purpose
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I believe in liberty. I feel it is necessary for the health of the world that every man shall be able to say and do what he wishes and what is within his power, for each human being has a unique contribution to make toward our understanding of life, because every man is himself unique. His physical and his mental makeup is unique, and his circumstances are unique. So he must be able to tell us something which could not be learned from any other source.

I wish I believed this only when I am writing about politics, but I believe it also in my capacity as a woman with a family and friends. I don’t find it makes life easy, but it’s not just a matter of giving everybody their head. It happens that if you let a man say and do what he likes, there comes a point when he wants to say or do something which interferes with the liberty of someone else to say or do what he likes.

Therefore, it follows that I see as the main problem of my life, the balancing of competitive freedoms. This involves a series of very delicate calculations, and you can never stop making them. This principle has to be applied in personal relations, and everybody knows that the Ready Reckoner to use there is love; but it takes a lot of real talent to use love effectively. The principle has to be applied in social relations also, and there the Ready Reckoner is the Rule of Laws, political scientists call it; a sense of mutual obligations that have to be honored, and a legal system which can be trusted to step in when that sense fails.

When I was young, I understood neither the difficulty of love nor the importance of law. I grew up in a world of rebellion, and I was a rebel. I thought human beings were naturally good, and that their personal relations were bound to work out well, and that the law was a clumsy machine dealing harshly with people who would cease to offend as soon as we got rid of poverty. And we were all quite sure that human nature would soon be perfect.

Yes, I can remember that when I was something like eleven years old, a visitor to my mother’s home who had been in Russia described how she had one day been caught in the middle of a pogrom, and had seen the Cossacks knouting the Jews in the street. And I remember listening and thinking, “Now I mustn’t forget this. People will be interested to hear of this when I’m old, because of course all this sort of thing will have died out long before.” You can imagine what a shock it’s been to me and my generation now that that sort of thing has become common form in many parts of the world, and such a pogrom, though horrible indeed, seems a small thing compared to the horrors millions have suffered today.

Horrors which were inflicted by human beings like me. I realize now that what’s good on this earth does not happen as a matter of course; it has to be created and maintained by the effort of love and by submission to the Rule of Law. But how are we to manage to love, being so given to cruelty? How do we preserve the law from being corrupted by our corruption, since it’s a human institution? As I grow older, I find more and more as a matter of actual experience that there is a God, and I know that religion offers a technique for getting in touch with Him, but I find that technique very difficult. I hope I am working a way to the truth through my writing, but I also know that I must write to the thought of God in my mind for it to have any value. It’s not easy; indeed, it’s much more difficult than being a rebel. But I remind myself that if I wanted life to be easy, I should have got born on a different universe.

Critic, journalist, novelist and feminist Rebecca West is known for her studies of the Nazi war crimes trials at Nuremburg, for which President Harry Truman called her “the world’s best reporter." In 1959, West was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the female equivalent of an honorary knighthood.