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A reading list in motion

“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?”

Those are the words of French philosopher and activist Simone Weil. They begin the first chapter of a new book by award-winning author Sigrid Nunez, “What Are You Going Through.”

There is no question mark at the end of that phrase in the title. It’s a simple, open-ended statement that unleashes a deep and thoughtful look at joy and loss.

I have heard from readers who share my affection for this author. I have just begun reading her newest work, but even in the early pages, I see its power. I encourage you to call it up on Kindle or check again to ensure your name on the library’s waiting list. The title is only the beginning.

Today, however, I am writing about Simone Weil, the person who gave impetus to the Nunez book in the aforementioned quote. She was a political activist who was born in 1909 and died, unpublished, at age 34. Careful readers will note she did place a question mark at the end of her love-your-neighbor phrase. She apparently questioned everything.

Simone Weil was born into a “wealthy, agnostic-Jewish Parisian family,” and is described as a “pacifist who trained with anarchists.” Her older brother was the world renowned mathematician Andre Weil.

Simone Weil converted to Christianity at a young age and embraced it with a unique fervor. One of her more notable ideas, as cataloged in “Haaretz,” an Israeli news publication, is described as follows, “Weil felt that suffering is a virtue, not a divine punishment.” For her, suffering was said to be “a curious form of God’s love. Affliction was a way toward love.”

“Gravity and Grace” was the after-death and first-ever publication by the “remarkable thinker” Simone Weil. The farmer and friend to whom she entrusted her notebooks before her untimely death from tuberculosis created a “extraordinary compendium” of her thoughts that have become “a source of spiritual guidance” for many.

I like to have several books in motion at once. “Gravity and Grace” is a book I have also just begun to read. It flows as a series of sometimes random-seeming thoughts rather than any life-narrative. But a fellow reader trying to navigate his way through her brilliance said, “I found fresh and hopeful perspectives in phrases like ‘God’s love for us is not the reason for which we should love him. God’s love for us is the reason for us to love ourselves.’”

It is, indeed, a time in which loving — ourselves, our neighbors and one another — is particularly important. In virus-laden, post-wildfire days, “What are you going through?” may replace the handshake which we are encouraged not to initiate and the smile that we cannot see under our face coverings. A heartfelt and open-ended query can be the beginning of miracles.

As Simone Weil muses, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Sharon Johnson is a writer and retired educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.