I don’t remember its title or its author. I do recall that there was a character, or perhaps there were characters, who kept saying “etwas muss getan werden”—“something must be done.” You see, we read quite a few existentialist short stories in German IV in high school. There were so few of us left from the freshman intro all the way back in ninth grade that our teacher could put us right in the middle of German literature and have us read. I wish I still had that facility now. Although I can work my way through many languages academically (German, French, Spanish, Italian, and, of course, the dead languages of koine Greek, classical Hebrew, Ugaritic, and assorted other semitic dialects), the fluency of sitting down and just reading atrophied long ago. Still, etwas muss getan werden. That sense of anxiety feels like it’s permanent now.
Every now and again, when tensions are running high—this past week is an example—I find myself nervously checking online news sources frequently to see if anything dramatically good has happened. This gets to be almost a tic. I need to have some assurance that we’ve not become a dictatorship, or that there are those in power with enough humanity left inside them have tried to do something to make things better. Being a nation of throw-away people is ethically wrong no matter what scale you use. Skin color and national heritage do not lessen the worth of any human being. We can’t even get out to protest properly because a pandemic, which is still being mishandled, rages. The days are full of such sameness. Etwas muss getan werden. Please.
I wish I could remember the stories I read in high school. Some have stayed with me through the years. German class was my introduction to existentialism, a philosophy with which I still mostly identify. That was the reason I would pick up books by Kafka, Camus, and Dürrenmatt when I would find them in the once plentiful used book stores. I remember the latter’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. I recall seeing the play performed and being reminded that we are all players in a drama whose only sense comes from our assignment of the same. Now I sit inside on sunny days. Afraid of economic insecurity—who knows how long the jobs will hold out?—I don’t go to stores and try to order as little as possible online. I keep waiting for something to happen. As I learned in high school etwas muss getan werden, no matter where I read it.
Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.
I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.
The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.