The Crucible

Because my daughter is reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, we watched the movie version over the weekend. Many of us read Miller’s allegorical tale of accusations of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, written during the McCarthy era, in one literature class or another.

Although it conveys an fantastically extreme situation, what gives the story so much power is that it portrays how easy it is for fear – especially fear transmitted to a large enough group – to transmogrify once rational persons into a frenzied and hysterical mob capable of acting so utterly irrationally. In Salem, 19 women and men were hung for witchcraft between June and September 1692 and dozens more languished in prison for months. Although no one was hung during the McCarthy era, thousands were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers, many suffering loss of jobs, the destruction of their careers and imprisonment. In both cases, there was very little credible evidence of any wrongdoing of the accused.

I think incidents like these are good reminders of the power of fear and suspicion. Unchecked and allowed to grow out of control, they can bring rational (and apparently God-fearing) people to do incredibly cruel and irrational things. I wrote yesterday about the need for space and for choice between stimulus and response. Incidents like these ought to encourage us to pray for the grace to retain that space when fear and suspicion arise.


Between Stimulus and Response

Every once in a while one hears a simple statement, the truth of which is so strikingly apparent one wonders at how often it is ignored. The statement, which I read in a Buddhist magazine is this:

Between stimulus and response, there’s choice.

For many people, including the person who wrote the article the contained the line, the idea that one can choose whether and how to respond to a stimulus is a radical one. We so often behave as if there is no choice, reacting automatically to whatever the stimulus is.

When we react without choice, we react without wisdom, and we react without the benefit of God’s grace. And we know the risk when that happens: How many times do we react automatically – particularly when the stimulus in question is something negative (for example, someone criticizing us or otherwise saying or doing something we don’t like), and then later wish we could have the reaction back?

So it may be a simple truth, but it is also an important lesson to learn. And I think part of the benefit of a regular prayer practice is that a habit of contemplation helps teach us that there is space between action and reaction. There is space for wisdom, for grace, for choice.