If a young woman were to blog in response to the challenges of her generation in the United States in September 1942, what might she say? Perhaps she would ask her audience to try to become more sensitive, more purposeful, and more…expendable???
Expendable? Doesn’t that word imply a lack of self-worth? If you are expendable, then you don’t really matter. You might as well be tossed away. But that is exactly the word Ruth Weigle chose.
One year earlier as Ruth entered her senior year at Wellesley College, the German army began its long siege of Leningrad. Japan occupied much of China, and plans were underway for the attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The “dim, shadowy regions of the future” that Ruth had written about as a pre-teen in 1932 became searing bright with the events of 1941. World War II ignited the fears and energies of her entire generation.
During the years 1941 to 1943, Ruth filled a notebook almost 1 inch thick with clippings from newspapers, study outlines from conferences, typed copies of poems, and several inspirational talks that she gave to women students. Today I treasure my mother’s notebook more than any other physical object I keep.
Ruth served as President of the Christian Association as a Wellesley senior. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, she attended the National Assembly of the Student Christian Movement December 27, 1941 to January 3, 1942.
She wrote the following curious notes from a talk, apparently at that assembly, titled “Revelation of God thru Personal Experience:”
What is directly involved in becoming + being a person
1. Communication one with another – sharing of insight
2. Reciprocal recognition of desires
Recog. own wants
Recog. others ”
3. Recognition of the claims, obligations owed to others.
4. Recognition of some sort of common ground of obligation
Basic environment laying oblig. on all
One is not born a person in this sense. One
becomes a person through painful
One becomes a person only in the context of sharing life with other people. It reminds me of Paul Tournier’s book, The Meaning of Persons. However, Tournier’s Le Personnage et La Personne would not appear for 13 years and the English translation 2 years after that. Perhaps there was something about “persons” in the air then. The notes do not disclose the name or background of the conference speaker, perhaps Germanic-Scandinavian, as Ruth herself, based on the emphasis on obligation and even the gloomy prospect of “painful protracted struggle.” But those ideas would be on everyone’s mind in December 1941.
Ruth graduated from Wellesley College in June 1942, spent the summer in Pennsylvania as a counselor on a farm for delinquent girls, and came back to the Boston area to be a housemother-teacher for privileged young women at Pine Manor Junior College in the fall.
Here in her own words is a vespers talk to the incoming senior class at Pine Manor, attempting to answer the question, “What qualities of mind and heart and spirit must we possess to give worth and meaning to the days ahead?”
Let us put aside all coldness of heart, all wanderings of mind that we may draw near to God here present among us, and be quickened by His Spirit.
You remember the words Miss Carter spoke at Thursday morning chapel – you cannot choose the circumstances in which you will live your life, but you can choose how you will meet them. It is this that I want to talk to you about tonight — how you as seniors at Pine Manor can meet the year ahead. I claim a special closeness to what I shall say, for I have just been a senior myself – at Wellesley. I am going to speak quite simply and directly to you from my deepest convictions, convictions which have grown out of much self-searching and hard thought.
To be a senior is at once a hardship and a satisfaction, isn’t it. You find suddenly that infinitely more is expected of you –in class and outside of class. The responsibility of the school is yours –you are the leaders – the freshmen look up to you as the wise and experienced members of the community. Your example, whether by action or word or suggestion, exerts a considerable influence upon those about you. Senior year is not an easy year –but in the very challenge it offers lies its greater joy. But what of this senior year? To all this usual load of responsibility is added the weight of the world. Outside this peaceful little village rages the conflict and confusion of the battleground. Past the indescribable beauty of these autumn days lie barbed wire and shell holes and the rubble of bombed cities –ugliness, cruelty, horror. Here we are sheltered and safe; life goes on, very little changed. Elsewhere there is no shelter, no safety. Men and women and children have been forced to take up a new life of blood and suffering and sorrow.
How can we here face the year? What qualities of mind and heart and spirit must we possess to give worth and meaning to the days ahead?
First, we must learn and practice sensitivity. We must be sensitive to all that is happening about us. It is very easy not to see, or to choose not to see. It has been easy in peacetime as well as in wartime. One of the greatest shocks I have had was to realize what a city of contrasts New York is –to see in one block one of the world’s most beautiful and costly cathedrals, and around the corner crowded tenements where unbelievable living conditions breed delinquency, disease, and bitterness. I shall not soon forget hearing the experience of one of the outstanding negro educators in this country who happened to be in the Social Security Administration Office of that city one day. As he was waiting, a man came in requesting more money because his eyesight was growing poorer. When questioned, his story was this: Before, he had been able to get enough to eat from the city garbage cans, but now he couldn’t see very well, and was worsted by the others and would have to buy his food. To be aware of such reality is painful – ugly, but we cannot shut ourselves off from the world – or the war. To read the newspapers now is a spiritual agony – the casualty lists, the disasters at sea, the killing of hostages, the bombings — we should like to escape from them, but we must not. The luxury of an ivory tower is false, unreal and deadening to the soul. Because we are intelligent, responsible people, because we believe in right and freedom, but supremely because we are one with all men under God, we cannot be ignorant or indifferent – we must be sensitive to their suffering.
2ndly, we must be purposeful. There is no longer time and place in the world for drifters. I don’t mean that each of us should be filled with a burning zeal for a specific career. I mean by purpose an inner intent, an honest reckoning with life and an evaluation of its meaning for you. Too many too long have been afraid to think. War brings us back sharply to fundamentals—and it is time. Have you asked yourself what would remain for you should your home, your family, your possessions be suddenly destroyed –what in you is worth your brother’s or your fiance’s or even more, a stranger’s life? Such an honest reckoning with life will give you an inner strength that will mold every aspect of your days –the way you study, the way you relax, the friends you choose, everything. Don’t misunderstand me—such an inner purpose does not mean that you will all turn into solemn bookworms or pious busy-bodies, but it does mean strength of spirit.
3rdly, we must be expendable. By that I mean that we must be ready to give of ourselves – our time, our energy, our thought, our work, our devotion. I suspect you all long ago discovered there is more truth than poetry in the old adage that you only get out of a thing what you put into it. You must have discovered that to be true in whatever you have undertaken – work or relaxation. It is most evidently true perhaps in friendship and love. The more you give of yourself, the more you have to give, and the more you have to give, and the more you receive. When I say we must give, I do not mean in external ways –money, knitting, and the rest. External giving is vitally important, but it is far the easiest. I mean the much harder giving of yourself.
It’s much easier, for example, to contribute a substantial amount to the support of our church’s religious education program, than to take a Sunday School class yourself. I speak most feelingly—for I spent the morning teaching the 4th grade girls—and I was limp when my 11 raring tearing children vanished at the end of the hour. But why should I try to express the necessity of giving oneself, when no one has expressed it more profoundly or beautifully than Jesus. You will recall his words: “If any one wants to go with me, he must disregard himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to preserve his own life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me and for the good news will preserve it.”
Finally, sensitivity, purpose, self-giving profit us nothing unless we have faith – faith in God, creator and sustainer of the universe, who loves us with a father’s love, whose purposes tho often past our understanding, are infinitely good and infinitely true. Everything else may go, friends, security, peace, love — faith remains, it is enuf. Faith is an ultimate. In time of utter bankruptcy, it is the only ground of endurance and hope. This summer I was working at a farm school for delinquent girls in Penn. We were weeding squash. Suddenly one of the girls came over to me and asked if she might sit down. She didn’t feel well. I gave her permission, and in a few moments went over to her. Her whole body was shaking with tremendous sobs. Bit by bit, her story came out. Her mother and father, after twenty years of married life were separating, her sister was dying in the hospital of a suicide attempt, her brother had just been reported missing in New Caledonia. What could I say? All ordinary words of comfort were meaningless. I could say only this – that she must somehow have faith, wait upon God’s purpose and trust his love.
Faith knows no certainty, no demonstrable reward. It believes because it must believe, will believe. Do you know the story of the old woman of Munich who was seen going about the streets in broad day with a torch in one hand, a pail of water in the other? She was going to put out the fires of hell and burn the joys of heaven, so that men might have faith in the Lord for himself alone, and not for fear of punishment nor hope of heaven.
But faith, while it looks for no reward is given reward indeed. For men and women who have faith, life opens out rich and full. To believe in something with all one’s strength is ultimately to find it. Lord Tweedsmuir understood when wrote at the close of his autobiography, Pilgrim’s Way, “We are condemned to fumble in these times for the mist is too thick to see far down the road. But in all our uncertainty we can have Cromwell’s hope. To be a Seeker is to be of the best sect next to a Finder, and such a one shall every faithful, humble seeker be at the end.”
Let us pray: “Lord we would pray for sensitive hearts, purposeful wills, self-giving and faithful spirits that so we may endure and triumph, whatever lies ahead.” Amen
If Ruth Weigle were to come back among us in 2017, what would she write in a blog? Would it be something like what we have just read? She might make a small correction, because the story about the torch, the pail of water, and faith in the Lord for himself actually originated with a woman named Rabi’a, considered a saint by Sufi Muslims, during the early years of Islam in Basra, Iraq. My mother would have no problem with that.
As a young woman in 1942, in fellowship with the millions of young men who enlisted in the armed forces regardless of the draft, Ruth Weigle considered herself expendable. She believed in Jesus’ words: “whoever loses his life for me and for the good news will preserve it.”
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Featured image: A page from Ruth Weigle’s notebook 1941 to 1943. Family treasure.
Burning ships at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, by U.S. Navy, National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier 295976. CC0 Public doman, Wikimedia Commons.