Risks and Rewards

After finishing Let the Great World Spin, I had to take a step back and rethink the tightrope walker metaphor. I’d initially thought the image was about maintaining a sense of separation or aloofness out of a need for self protection. Now, however, and somewhat ironically, I believe it’s about being willing to engage, to take the risk, and to reap the benefits of having put oneself out there.

This realization made me recall a Teddy Roosevelt quote that’s always inspired me: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

In this regard, there seem to be two camps of characters in Let the Great World Spin – those that engage and those that exist on the periphery. Those that are willing to put themselves in the arena, like Corrigan, or even Solomon to some extent, are answering a call and are willing to endure emotional pain, monotony, disillusionment, and even physical suffering to accomplish what they have been called to do. (Corrigan, in particular, seems to be on some sort of quest for meaning.) Along the way, they’re tested on many levels, and it’s revealed that they’re flawed like everyone else around them. But what differentiates them is their willingness to charge headlong into the teeming mass of humanity that is New York – particularly the menacing New York of the 1970s, before the city remade itself to be more accessible, safe, and welcoming to visitors.

It’s worth noting as well that some of the characters that stand for a time along the edges of the action in Let the Great World Spin do ultimately throw themselves “unto the breach.” Corrigan’s brother, Ciaran, who is so nondescript that he goes unnamed for several chapters, does finally begin to take part in the world he’s been watching. He’s wounded by it, but does find his way through and even connects with an unlikely soul mate. Similarly, the socialite that’s lost her son to the war in Vietnam, and who has locked herself away in her Park Avenue tower (both emotionally and physically) lets her defenses down just enough that she enables a friendship that redefines her life and that of many others.

I suppose that’s the final point I’d like to make. Let the Great World Spin is also a story of unlikely alliances and human connections: an Irish monk finds his calling in “ministering” to New York’s prostitutes; a wealthy Jewish woman from the Upper East Side finds a best friend in a midwestern, African American housewife residing in the Bronx; and a man, who has lost his brother to a senseless accident on the city’s streets, finds love with a woman directly connected to his brother’s death. In the end, every feeling the characters experience, every connection, every breakthrough is the result of being willing to step out on the wire, to work without a net, and to just reach out on the off chance that someone out there will respond, fill their empty spaces, and help them find a sense of peace and purpose.

What a book.

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