The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2018

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On Beings to Whom Things Happen
James V. Schall, S.J. - 12/23/10

“The ruins of the cathedral of Elgin afforded us another proof of the waste of reformation. There is enough yet remaining to show, that it was once magnificent. Its whole plot is easily traced.”

—Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 1773.

“Sally to Charlie Brown: ‘It’s that same girl on the phone again. . . . She says she’s an old friend of yours.’” Charlie listens with perplexity. “She insists on coming over to see you. She says she hasn’t seen you for a long time . . .” Charlie wonders who she is. Sally concludes: ‘I warned her that she’ll probably be disappointed.’”[1]

—Charles Schulz, Peanuts.


Of all the peculiar things about our existence, one that is most obvious but too seldom reflected upon is the fact that we are simply here and things happen to us because of it. We are beings to whom things happen. They just do. We can do little about it, or, on reflection, we see that this fact that things happen to us is essential to the kind of beings we are. Here, I wish to call attention to this side of our being. We are much more attentive to those things that we cause to happen. And the fact that things can and do happen to us is itself a profound insight into the limited kind of beings we are. And I would add that it is all right to be a limited being. The alternative is not to be an unlimited being, but not to be anything at all.

A flash flood occurred one weekend this past summer in a state park in Arkansas. As a result several families who had been camping there were lost in the raging waters. The water-level rose so quickly upstream after downpours in the night that no one really knew of or expected such an event. By all human standards it was a tragedy for these normal families out on a weekend camping trip with the kids. Such things, of course, happen every day on larger or smaller scales some place in the world. Indeed, their relative frequency makes most of them invisible to us.

Sometimes chance events are happy, or so we think. We win the lottery, or get an unexpected job. Other times they are upsetting and sad like a flash flood on a summer night in Arkansas, though even with these chance events we ask questions about providence and meaning. Accidents seem to be part of or included in the order of things as if at some point they belong there as accidents.

To conceive a world with no accidents is to imagine something out of our experience. Things of chance enliven and threaten our daily lives. Yet accidents reveal purpose, or better, cross-purpose. One thing going one way crosses another going another, neither intending to cross each other, but they nonetheless do. In this sense, we can say of our meeting of almost any other human being that there is an element of chance in it. Things occurring by chance are simply doing what they are intended to do. Rain falls. Rivers overflow with too much water for their normal capacity. People meet in out of the way places.

The two Aristotelian categories of passion, "being acted upon," and action are obviously related to each other, acting and being acted upon. These categories already indicate the existence of things that need not exist but do. Moreover, we have the constant distinction between things that happen to us through “natural” causes, such as floods, or those that are caused by the intervention of willed human agency, such as the destruction of the cathedral in Elgin that Johnson mentioned.

And of course, we have the Charlie Brown dilemma. When we see something “again,” will we be disappointed? Indeed, if we see anything at all, will we be disappointed or, perhaps more often, delighted? But in principle, we cannot see anything at all unless it is already there to be seen. Our very seeing depends on what is already there. Neither our sight or intelligence makes the things we see and identify. This experience is itself a wonder to us. There are things. We have a capacity to apprehend them. We give ourselves neither our capacity nor the things that are there. Without their very passivity, their being there, we could not perceive anything.

What concerns me here is the notion of “being acted upon.” We normally think of a “patient” as someone who is operated on or acted upon. The patient’s only task is to be there with his condition. The medical analogy is obvious, but the category of “being acted on” is broader than this common experience. The patient is to be restored to what he was or ought to be. A patient is already a something. Soil itself, for instance, is acted upon when we plant something in it or when it rains. The planting and rain happen to it, though it is itself already a certain kind of thing.

Here, I am not so much concerned with resistance to being acted on, but in the fact that we are the beings to whom things happen by way of various agencies originating outside of ourselves. Without these agencies, of course, we could not live at all, even though human living is not essentially “being acted upon,” though this is essential to it. Our existence presupposes and requires myriads of things like sun and wind that act on us whether we like it or not. In this sense, it is quite all right to be a “dependent” being. The alternative to such dependency in our case is not being at all.

Such reflections already bring up the question of whether anything is found that is not acted upon. That is, complete dependence implies pure activity. It seems impossible that the world is only full of things acted upon. Activity stems from the kind of a being the thing is. Each thing acts according to what it is. Each thing has a kind of natural order by which, in its activity, we recognize it to be this thing and not that. In our experience, most things must first be acted upon before anything else can happen. However, unless they are there already, nothing we can do follows. We cannot act upon what is not there.

Socrates is famous for his observation that “It is better to suffer evil than to do it.” That is, he suggests that having things done to us may be better than doing things to others. This is a counter-intuitive position. It distinguishes between doing things and letting things happen to us. This Socratic phrase touches on a deep mystery, namely the relation of passion to action, of things acting and being acted upon. If it is better sometimes to “suffer” than to “do,” it follows that what we do is a factor in our action. If we cause others to “suffer” what we do to them, we cannot escape some judgment on our own activities.

Some things we “do” ought not to be done. Not every action is good even if it is possible to do it, which obviously it is. Thus “suffering” evil implies the power to recognize what the evil is that we suffer. There would be nothing noble about suffering for the sake of suffering itself. When we say it is “better” to suffer evil than to do it, we imply that suffering, being acted upon, is not itself a neutral thing. It is not just that we are acted upon, but that it is better to be acted on by someone else than for ourselves to do the same evil.


“Being acted upon” is a phrase well worth much reflection. We are a certain kind of being with the capacity of looking out on the world from a vantage point from within us. We possess ourselves with the awareness that we are initially not the cause of our existing at all. For us, “being acted upon” is a primary experience. Our very existence bears the mark of having been put there, not of our having put ourselves there. Philosophers tell us that the two most basic questions we can ask of our situation are: 1) Why is there something rather than nothing? And 2) Why is this thing not that thing? Things are, but they are in different ways.

To the first question, one might wonder about whether “nothing” is not the most “passive” of things. Is “nothing” the ultimate patient on which something happens? Theologians are careful to say that the phrase that God created out of nothing does not mean that nothing is some sort of material that God found. But nothing happens to nothing. This is why actuality stands before any thought about nothing. We cannot and do not begin in nothing, though we can by negating something catch a glimpse into what “nothing” means. The quality of being acted on presupposes something there to be acted on.

In this sense, passion, “being acted upon,” presupposes that something is there already. And there are many different kinds of things already there. One thing is not another thing. So the beings to which things happen are already found in what they are. What I find fascinating about the notion of a being to which something happens is the fact that a world is revealed to us that seems to want our attention called to it. If something happens to me, something that I have no control over, it shows the degree to which I am not in total command of my life or being. But it also shows me what sort of being I am, though perhaps I never noticed. Do I really want to be a being that is totally in control of everything? If so, would I still be the kind of being I am? And is not that the real issue, whether it is all right to be the kind of being we are?

We can relate the fact that things happen to us to another more graphic idea, namely, that things are gifts to us. We sometimes of course speak of rain or wind or sunshine as gifts. What else could they be? This way of speaking is itself somewhat curious. If such things merely happen to us, nothing more needs to be said, though we do note that we need them to be the kind of beings we are. The notion of gift adds something more. It suggests that the things that “happen” to us have a source that is not just deterministic. We can conceive the whole order of passivity as itself a gift. In this sense, things are unexpected but they do not come about for any reason at all.

What seems essential to the notion of gift is that something comes to us, something happens to us not merely by chance, though we did not anticipate it. A gift is also something that comes to us from the outside. From our point of view, they also just happen to us. In receiving gifts, we are like medical patients. We are there and we are acted upon. The patient is properly acted upon only if the action from the outside is directed to his own good. That is the difference between good and bad medicine. This fact that things are directed to our good does not deny that the accidents that can happen to us from the outside can also be destructive. We are the kind of beings to whom good and bad things happen, sometimes caused by nature, sometimes caused by free agents.

I mentioned earlier that I am not concerned here so much with resistance to things happening to us. Obviously, we need to protect ourselves. We build shelters against sun and rain. We seek to prevent free agents from abusing their power over us. In part, we organize ourselves into societies in order that we might do these things. We limit the ways things can happen to us. We know what can happen to us. We know what kind of beings we are. And yet, would we want to be in such total control of things that nothing can happen to us except at our sufferance? We would conceive ourselves after the manner of a divine being, of action and not passion. In that case, we would cease to be what we are.

We are the beings to whom things happen. We “suffer” what comes along to us. We learn what kind of beings we are from “suffering” such things that happen to us. So even though things happen to us, it does not follow that we are not aware that they do. What happens to us enters our soul. This is the kind of being that we are.

And is it all right that I am the kind of a being to whom things happen? “It is better to suffer evil than to do it”? At a most profound level, we can say that the highest human nobility is not found in doing but in suffering. But the suffering is what upholds what is good. It is not for its own sake. Only if this is so can we be given what we are.

This understanding of suffering is counter-intuitive, of course. We are not beings split in two, one part passive and one part active. In a sense, all of our being is both active and passive. When things happen to us, we know them, we know what they do. We provide for what we need, knowing that things happen to us. We thus should not be disappointed in the kind of beings we are, beings to whom things happen. This capacity is what initially opens the world to us, both as a world that is simply there and a world that is given to us, as if there is an order, a reason, in the giving, and in the being able to receive.

[1] Charles Schulz, Being a Dog Is a Full-Time Job (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1994), 103

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