The Final Word Is Love: Dorothy Day on Human Connection, Music, and the Power of Community
By Maria Popova
“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks,” Walt Whitman counseled in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life. Hardly anyone has embodied and enacted this ideal more fiercely than the great journalist, social activist, and Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897–November 29, 1980) — a woman who practiced what she preached and lived her values in every way: Amid a postwar culture that embraced consumerism as an act of patriotism, she advocated for and lived in voluntary poverty; she defied the IRS by refusing to pay federal taxes on war; her protests against racism, war, and injustice landed her in jail on multiple occasions.
Although Day’s lifetime of activism, altruism, and infinite compassion for the fragility of the human spirit were motivated by her faith and she is now being considered for sainthood, her legacy remains an instrument of secular motivation for the pursuit of social justice and the protection of human dignity. She belonged to that rare breed of people who manage to live righteous lives without slipping into self-righteousness in the face of human imperfection in others, for they are all too intimately familiar with its existence in themselves. A century after Whitman embraced his multitudes, Day remarked of the contradictory parts of herself: “It all goes together.”
In a sentiment that calls to mind artist Agnes Martin’s assertion that “we all have the same inner life” and Cheryl Strayed’s assurance that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Day considers the impulse to share one’s interior world with the exterior world — an immensely vulnerable-making act and yet, ultimately, an act of love:
Writing a book is hard, because you are “giving yourself away.” But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems… You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his human needs of sustenance and love.
Joining in the choir of celebrated writers who have extolled its singular power, Day points to music as a supreme solace for the human heart and its universal longings. Recounting hearing a psalm at the age of ten and being electrified by an indescribable, all-consuming joy — a joy Aldous Huxley memorably described as the “blessedness” of the musical experience — Day reflects on her lifelong relationship with music and art:
Whenever I felt the beauty of the world in song or story, in the material universe around me, or glimpsed it in human love, I wanted to cry out with joy. The Psalms were an outlet for this enthusiasm of joy or grief — and I suppose my writing was also an outlet. After all, one must communicate ideas. I always felt the common unity of our humanity; the longing of the human heart is for this communion.
Day ends her autobiography by returning to this longing for communion as the central driving force of human life — something we so easily forget when we buy into the divisive narratives of difference that make us fall apart and so easily remember when disaster and tragedy unite us into falling together. Day writes:
The final word is love… To love we must know each other … and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
Complement this particular fragment of The Long Loneliness with Elizabeth Alexander on the ethic of love, Martin Luther King, Jr. on what the ancient Greek notion of agape can teach us about breaking bread, Henry Beston on the power of community, and the great cellist Pau Casals on the measure of our humanity.
Published June 14, 2016