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NeverthelessBy Claire Colombo
Ernest Hemingway once wrote a six-word short story that goes like this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The story has given birth to an entire industry of six-word-story contests, publications, and websites.
If someone were to announce an eleven-word short story contest, I’d immediately nominate this recent utterance by our current U.S. Senate majority leader:
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
However you might feel about these eleven words as a piece of political, sociological, or ideological rhetoric, you have to admit that they constitute a work of narrative genius. Not only does this short-short story bristle with a universal theme—human agency—it also contains many of the basic elements of plot: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution. (Email me separately if you’d like a labeled diagram.)
In addition, the story is stylistically and syntactically brilliant. Subtle grammatical shifts—most notably, from the passive voice of the first two sentences to the active voice of the third—together with a distinct and slightly gothic narrative voice, a deft (if unintentional) use of irony, and masterful deployment of staccato prose make these eleven words a compelling read, indeed.
They also make the story interpretively rich: it’s possible to read and construe it in at least three different ways.
It can be read, for one, as a story about transgression and justice (as I believe its author intended). In this reading, the earlier-mentioned shift from passive to active voice—the claiming of agency by the subject, she—is an offense deserving of punishment. This is the story of a moral failure. The disciplined senator “broke the chamber’s rules on purpose … in order to boost her image within the Democratic Party,” one such reading goes.
It can also be read as a story about the triumph of personal resolve. In this reading, the shift from passive to active voice constitutes a victory deserving of praise. It is a story of grit, willpower, and individual success. About the final phrase she persisted, one feminist commentator effuses: “That right there is gold. She is the agent here. The actor. The one with agency.”
But there is a third reading of the story that I find more fascinating than either of these. The third reading pays close attention to a quiet, consistently overlooked member of this eleven-word family—word number nine, to be exact. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
As a conjunction, the word nevertheless acts like a hinge, or like a hand that passes a baton. It draws little attention to itself, although its torque and momentum are powerful and its aim precise. It sends things forward, bridging what came before (“She was warned. She was given an explanation”) with what comes after (“she persisted”). And, as a subordinating conjunction, it reminds us that what came before is less important than what comes after. Her persistence, at least grammatically speaking, regardless of the author’s intent, is triumphant. It’s where things are meant to go.
But—nevertheless. This word, meaning “despite a given factor,” marks a puzzle, a paradox, a relative impossibility. For example:
I feel grief; nevertheless, I dance.
I want to flee; nevertheless, I stay and listen.
Entire worlds are contained within nevertheless. Dimensions of reality shift. Orientations somersault. Powers change hands. Unlikelihoods unfold. Human agency lost becomes human agency regained.
In the nevertheless interpretation of the eleven-word story, the reader neither chastises nor cheers. She pauses at the pass to take a long, loving look. She notes the nexus. She asks, “How exactly does this happen, just now, and why?”
When I think about episodes in my own life that parallel the plot of this story—the times I’ve felt passive, paralyzed, and voiceless, but then, nevertheless, found a way forward—I see that very little has hinged on my own willpower, or talent, or grit. A certain attention was necessary: yes. A certain willingness was required: absolutely. But when the grammar of my life has flipped from passive to active, and, in spite of myself, I have found myself persisting, going where I’m meant to go, dancing instead of crying, staying instead of fleeing, the hinge of nevertheless hasn’t really been my own.
It’s been a culmination a thousand years in the making. It’s been a million voices of wisdom uncannily coalescing. It’s been generations of trial and error that have come to rest in a passing moment called “me.” It’s been decades of neural pathways being pared. It’s been hours of anguished, unconscious prayer.
In the language of our faith, it’s been the quiet but timely swinging-open door of grace.
Where in your life do you feel immobilized?
Where in your life is willpower not quite enough?
How can you invite the nevertheless to open a door that seems locked or sealed shut?
Dr. Claire Colombo is the director of the Center for Writing and Creative Expression at the seminary and has served on the seminary’s adjunct faculty since 2012. As a freelance writer, she develops religion and language arts curricula for Loyola Press of Chicago. She is a regular contributor to their “Finding God” magazine and newsletters.
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