February 18, 2014

Cliff's Edge

The May 17, 1947, issue of The New Yorker ran “The Enormous Radio,” a short story by John Cheever about a typical married couple with two young children living in a twelfth-floor apartment in Manhattan. It begins: “Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.”

One day Jim brings home a radio housed in a large, wooden box, the kind that today exist only in museums. Much to their surprise, the new radio allowed them to listen in on others in their building. “Those must be the Fullers, in 11-E,” Irene said. “I knew they were giving a party this afternoon. I saw her in the liquor store. Isn’t this too divine? Try something else. See if you can get those people in 18-C.”

Over time, though, what came from the wooden box disturbed Irene. Jim came home one day and found her upset over the fighting, the dysfunction, the dishonesty, and the battles over money and other things she heard all day over the radio. When Jim angrily told her to stop listening, Irene begged him not to fight with her, and to affirm that they were happy and that their lives weren’t as sordid and messed up as those others. After he assured her they were different, Irene calmed down and Jim got the radio fixed so that only music came from it.

A few weeks later Jim and Irene did get into an argument about money. Irene begged him to be quiet because people would hear. When Jim asked, Who would hear? she said, “The radio.” He responded that it didn’t hear them and he didn’t care if it did. Jim then attacked Irene for thinking she was so much better than everyone else. “You stole your mother’s jewelry before they probated her will. You never gave your sister a cent of that money that was intended for her—not even when she needed it. You made Grace Howland’s life miserable, and where was all your piety and your virtue when you went to that abortionist? I’ll never forget how [cold] you were. You packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were going to Nassau.”

Cheever ends it like this:

“Irene stood for a minute before the hideous cabinet, disgraced and sickened, but she held her hand on the switch before she extinguished the music and the voices, hoping the instrument might speak to her kindly. . . . Jim continued to shout at her from the door. The voice on the radio was suave and noncommittal. ‘An early-morning railroad disaster in Tokyo,’ the loudspeaker said, ‘killed 29 people. A fire in a Catholic hospital near Buffalo for the care of blind children was extinguished early this morning by nuns.

“The temperature is 47. The humidity is 89.”

With his story, Cheever wanted to make a statement about the domestic abjection of 1950s life in America. Yet I took something so much broader from “The Enormous Radio.” We’re all, like Irene, guilty and sin-damaged creatures who, unable, even unwilling, to confront the fullness of our faults, mask them by gawking at those of others, even if we do so subtly, nurturing those judgments in the quiet, unobtrusive corners of our brains. This is not the outright hypocrisy of the Pharisees; it’s more insidious because it’s private, less likely to be exposed, as theirs and Irene’s were.

But it’s hypocrisy nonetheless, and Paul warns: “So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (Rom. 2:3).

Each in our own way, we’re the Westcotts, and we don’t need an enormous radio to tell us that, either. So instead of judging others, let’s give them the grace that we covet for ourselves, the grace of unconditional love because, were love conditional, who could meet its conditions? When we condemn others, we condemn ourselves; and we need grace, not condemnation. Imagine our existence were we to give the hurting battered souls in front of our eyes the grace that the hurting battered soul behind them craves for itself.