“The Pit and the Pendulum” is a short story by the 19th century horror master, Edgar Allen Poe. It tells of a Frenchman’s brush with a horrific death during the Spanish Inquisition. For those of you whose history is a bit fuzzy, the Spanish Inquisition was a forceful, futile attempt to keep Spain Catholic. It began in 1478 and wasn’t definitively abolished until 1834. Heresy was illegal and punishable by death so the Inquisition was started to be sure there were no unjust executions. Good intentions gone awry and taken too far. About 150,000 people were charged with crimes and 3,000 to 5,000 were executed. Eventually targeted were Jews and Muslims, former Jews and Muslims who were thought to have not given up their ways, Protestants (although they were already in the minority), Witches, blasphemers, bigamists, sodomites (LGBT?), Freemasons, and women who did not fit the accepted idea of how a woman should act and what she should do. It started out with “evidence” gathering: testimony from neighbors and observations of the accused’s activities to find anything that would show a lifestyle other than mainstream Catholicism. For example, a family who routinely bought extra food on Friday and none on Saturday might be observing the Jewish Sabbath. After not too long, physical coercion was added. In other words, torture.
In Poe’s story, a man has been found guilty and condemned to death. He is placed in a pitch-black cell and discovers, by almost falling into it, that there is a deep, water and creature filled, circular pit in the middle of it. He passes out and awakens strapped to a wooden palate. His prison is now dimly lit. This light is enough for him to see a sharp blade suspended above him. He watches the blade swing slowly right to left dropping a small amount with each swing. With the help of the local rat population he is able to free himself. Now, however, two opposing walls of the room move toward each other, pushing him into the pit. Just when he is on the brink of destruction, the walls stop, his cell is entered and a French army officer grabs him. Spain has been invaded.
This summary does not do the intensity of the story justice. Check out your local library or The Literature Network (link on the list to the right) for the full story. What it does is form a basis for comparison to today’s social pits and emotional pendulums that we, the citizens of the world, should strive to not fall into and work to not be destroyed by.
The pit of tolerance, the pendulum of respect.
One definition of the word tolerance as found in good ol’ Meriam Webster is: “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs and practices different from one’s own.” Should one allow another to practice religion, live a lifestyle or have a belief system that is different? Certainly, as long as the religion, lifestyle or system does not injure, kill, damage, steal, extort, you get the idea. Should the other in turn allow the one to practice religion, live a lifestyle or have a belief system that is different? (With the above restrictions of course.) Again, certainly. What if the one has a request of the other, seemingly benign, that the other deems a violation of belief or an insult? Tolerance becomes a pit when the pendulum of respect has not stopped at its middle. Meriam Webster tells us that respect is: “to consider deserving of high regard” or “to refrain from interfering with.” In this case, the pendulum swings from respect of self but not others to respect of others but not self. At the former end, the request is denied with the requestee feeling insulted but justified and the requestor feeling upset, angry, insulted and wanting satisfaction. Pistols at 100 paces has been replaced by court dates, less deadly, more expensive. At the latter end, the request is granted, leaving the requestee frustrated and let down with himself for going against his beliefs or not standing up against the insult. The requestors will be perfectly happy and blissfully unaware, leaving the possibility open for repeat actions perhaps not with such a satisfying ending. If the balance of respect for self and others is obtained, the requestee either kindly denies the request adding a suggestion of where to go for fulfillment, or he finds a way to fulfill what is asked and not compromise his beliefs. Above all, he does not take insult. The requestor, having the same balance, accepts the denial and goes elsewhere, or finds a way to fill the request himself. Above all, he also does not take insult.
The pit of bigotry, the pendulum of fear.
A bigot according to Webster is: “one intolerantly devoted to his own church, party or opinion.” Bigotry can be innocently created when one ignorantly stays staunchly with one’s belief system and excludes all other information. This kind reverses with knowledge: getting to know the strange neighbors, learning about another church, culture or way of life are examples. The creatures in the pit of bigotry are fear fed. Fear of losing one’s identity, fear of physical harm, or fear of divine retribution are common pit food. Usually one’s sense of self solidifies with knowledge. Love one another as I have loved you is divine counsel. But, physical harm sometimes is a valid concern. The pendulum of fear swings from fear inspiring intolerance, leading to negative or destructive actions to fearless acceptance of any and all. Acceptance that is so wide open one loses sight of moral proprieties and divinely set boundaries. The central point contains enough concern to inspire thought provoking conversation and learning about how “their ideas/lifestyle” and “ours” can peacefully co-exist. Mental strategies are then created and put into place to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” Friendships are created, bridges are built, understanding and love flourish. On the one end of the swing are the actions that are all to commonly reported in the media, fighting, lawsuits, sustained hatred, lawlessness. Leaving the pendulum on the other would be a boring day on CNN indeed, but is that the best for each side? If the difference is just difference, ancestral nationality, language, food choices, religious beliefs, all those parts of cultural difference, stopping the swing at the wide-open end may be as good as resting it in the center. However, if the difference is associated with a moral imperative or divine command, the Acceptor could easily lose spiritual balance. Should one be rejected due to ways of living that are contrary to our ways? As above, as long as those ways do not injure, kill, damage, steal, extort, etc., most certainly not. Should another embrace the ways to the point of avoiding subjects that, through stating truths, negatively criticize the way or shun one? Should the other be so concerned with the feelings of the one as to give comfort and apologies when anything is said that puts the way into a negative light? If that way is against divinely set boundaries, most certainly not! Feelings, desires, wishes are not sins. As the saying goes, “stress is when the mind overrides the body’s desire to choke the daylights out of a jerk who desperately needs it.” Crime would be actually doing it. Crime is committing actions that violate man’s law. Sin is committing actions that violate God’s laws. There are various consequences for crime, but only repentance for sin. Repentance involves a measure of discomfort. That’s the way God communicates the need to change. If one feels uncomfortable during a conversation, perhaps God is saying something and one needs to listen. For another to attempt to relieve the discomfort is doing one a grave disservice.
The pit of despair, the pendulum of selfishness.
Despair is beyond sadness or depression. It is losing all hope, all confidence in one’s life. The pendulum of selfishness swings from narcissistic “I am the center of and reason for all life” to uncontrolled selflessness. This is putting others before self to the point of neglect of basic needs and fostering feelings of worthlessness. Despair flourishes at this end. In the center, lies an area where one is able to meet one’s basic physical and emotional needs and then gives to others. This area also includes allowing others to give, while graciously receiving the gifts. Unless genuine mental illness is present, we, human kind, need to be needed. We need to feel worthwhile and important to those around us. The best way to do this is to serve and graciously accept service. Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” The upside-down is also true. If you love people, you have no time to judge them. Keeping your selfishness pendulum in the center not only avoids despair, but also bigotry and keeps tolerance and respect in a healthy balance.
Thanks for reading.