That from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartetshis “answer” to the problems he raised in The Wasteland. Or at least I think it is.  I didn’t understand The Wasteland the first time I read it, and my comprehension hasn’t improved much since.

Few lines capture the central neurosis of our age better. Our relationship to reality is not an uncompromised one.  It is tarnished, marked by sin, and the refusal to bear responsibility for our actions in it.  At the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Great DivorceLewis wakes in a fit of horror because he has seen a glimpse of the reality beneath the shadows, the fixed eternal that is the accumulation of a million choices distended through time, and he cannot bear the sight.  God, we hear in those pages, is the Fact to whom the universe answers, and the Fact on which all other facts depend.  It is a point worth contemplating.

My own generation, the “millenials,” love to talk about being “authentic.”  And well we should, for whatever else happens, we cannot fail in honesty or veracity to that which we are—in Christ.

But as Eliot reminds us, authenticity isn’t easy.  Rather, it is the most difficult thing of all.  Acknowledging the reality of who we are is the sort of enterprise that will inevitably fail unless aided by grace.  The moment we claim to “know ourselves” is precisely the moment when we are most prone to self-deception, especially if that knowledge is not mediated to us by the Word of God.

Our age is one of deep confusion about the nature and authority of reality, and one of endless amusements to help us avoid it. We are, to return to Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” working tirelessly to avoid God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  No generation has been able to bear reality—ours is simply the first that has been able to construct a virtual alternative that is more to our liking.

But avoiding the truth is a fool’s game, for the Fact that we avoid is one named Love.  Truth and grace have met in the person of Jesus Christ, the Beloved Disciple tells us, and inasmuch as we are in Him we will see them both in equal measure.  In Him we can bear all the reality he gives to us, for He gives it to us according to our measure.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I often find myself depressed and repelled by my authentic self, and I think many who honestly look at themselves, and the “reality beneath the shadows,” are tempted towards despair. If not for grace, who could really countenance reality? If not for the cross, who could survive it?

    Avatar is interesting because it so vividly and attractively depicts the myth that we have constructed about this present reality, and the hope that with the right people and right hearts we might be able to start over again, to rebuild Eden. I suspect that myth still captivates us because humans cannot bear reality, and have failed to acknowledge our own complicity in creating the world as it is.


  2. “I often find myself depressed and repelled by my authentic self…”

    Impossible. Your authentic self is in Christ, and hence is good, glorious, etc. It’s your pseudo-authentic self that prompts you to despair. The more you are united with Christ, the more you become you. (And I’m quite serious about this.)

    The true part of Avatar is that reality is beautiful and good. And that’s the burden of Eliot’s line, I think. It’s goodness we can’t stand–we’re quite happy (as anyone who has lived in LA will tell you) reveling in the ugly.



    1. “Your authentic self is in Christ…” A very good correction, Matthew. We were created in the image of God for fellowship with him, but separated by sin. My carnal nature, which repels me, is not my authentic nature. I was incorrectly conflating those two.

      I’ll have to re-read the Eliot poem, which like all Eliot poems requires more than a few reads to gain its meaning.


  3. “It’s goodness we can’t stand…”

    I agree with this Matt, especially in the context of the poem. When you read it slowly, goodness starts to seep through the more mundane imagery, imagery that remains grossly mundane if you read too quickly, if you’re not paying attention.

    However, I would add that, or maybe nuance that, it’s first of all goodness we fail to see. I don’t know if I can’t stand it, as you say. I’m too busy, too distracted by my own inward bent to observe and experience the goodness of the concrete pool being filled “with water out of sunlight” because a cloud passes and suddenly it’s empty again. I didn’t experience any goodness to be burdened by.

    Perhaps we cannot bear so much reality, not because it’s unbearable, but because we are bearing other burdens, encumbering ourselves with our importance, or whatever your vice may be; mine tends to be too much concern with making sure I’m of value (hence, a lack of faith in my value in Christ) as the man on the 3rd or 4th planet in “The Little Prince” does.

    As for your premise about The Wasteland, I have no opinion on whether Burnt Norton is his answer. But thanks for sharing. I love the Four Quartets, especially Burnt Norton, and I will spend some time studying The Wasteland with this idea in mind.


  4. […] T.S. Eliot’s ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’, given an explicitly Christian reading here—there are religious ideas lurking near these arguments). Clark also alludes to possible literary […]


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