“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”
These lines from T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land have long haunted me, especially in the context of the abortion debate.
Could Eliot somehow see into the future and visualize what a “Choice” Chain looks like? Of course not, my rational side thinks; he was simply speaking about the terrible social isolation he was witnessing in his own time. Suffering and loneliness and the impact of death are by no means new phenomena. Nevertheless, I have been reminded of his words many times when I have gone out to do activism.
The parallels are almost eerie. As we stand on street corners for “Choice” Chain, crowds of people will mill past, their eyes usually cast downward towards their cellphones. And when they do look up — often startled, understandably, by the unusual question “What do you think about abortion?” — their apathy often suddenly transforms into anger, which often masks underlying grief. I have lost count of the number of post-abortive people that I have met in the 5 years that I have been involved with CCBR. Millions of tiny corpses do not simply disappear in a vapour cloud of ‘choice’; a scarred society is left behind. Death has undone so many.
And yet, there is so much reason for hope. I have heard it said that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I agree with the sentiment, but the wonderful thing is that the truth isn’t just a faint candle. The truth is a roaring fire, dispelling both the shadow of death and the chill of empty ideologies.
I remember speaking, for instance, with a young woman named Olga, several summers ago in Toronto. She stopped because she was curious about our signs and our views, but she supported abortion and said that she was not sure what she herself would do in an unplanned pregnancy situation. She especially thought that abortion was needed to prevent future suffering for the child. I spoke with her at length, but nothing seemed to get through and she remained obstinately pro-choice.
Unsure how to continue the conversation, I tentatively shared with her what I had learned from philosopher Viktor Frankl about suffering. I told her that suffering did not have to lead to despair, because although we will all suffer at some point, it is possible to find meaning in even the darkest situations. That was the proverbial “light bulb” moment for Olga. She responded with passionate agreement, and we talked about how we would both try to help people find meaning in the face of immense suffering. We talked about the importance of preventing lethal choices like suicide as a response to suffering. Olga then made the connection that abortion, like suicide, was a tragedy rather than a solution. Before leaving, she said to me, “You’ve definitely pushed me towards the pro-life end of the scale. I’ll never get an abortion. There’s always another way.” When she considered a philosophy built on hope rather than despair, her heart changed and softened towards the pre-born baby.
Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is a long, grim survey of a 1920s world reeling from recent war. As the title suggests, the very earth itself seems to cry out in anguish. Nevertheless, the speaker in the poem takes a hopeful turn towards the end, when he notes that rain is coming to revive the arid landscape. Faint hope further lies in the speaker’s concluding thoughts: These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Stories, flickers of light here and there, are enough to at least provide him with hope. And I think of the testimonies like that sometimes. The darkness of abortion can be overwhelming—death has undone so many—but my mind is also filled with story after story of people whom I have seen, before my own eyes, go from supporting abortion to rejecting it. The testimonies are fragments of hope and healing to shore against a crumbling culture.
However, I have even firmer reasons for hope. One of my friends is fond of saying that a plethora of anecdotes is not data. Stories by themselves are not enough. We need firm evidence that our work is changing the culture, and saving children. But we have the data – the hard numbers that show that simply seeing abortion victim photography changes people’s perceptions of abortion. The testimonies are then merely reflections of those stats; stories are ‘data with a soul’, as researcher Brené Brown puts it.
And I have a firmer reason still for hope in the face of abortion and all the shadows of this world. It’s a hope that eluded Eliot at the time of his writing The Waste Land, but one that he eventually embraced in his conversion to Christianity later in life. We grieve at the deaths of countless children, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope. Death does not have the final say. When the light shines in the darkness, the darkness does not overcome it.