Sophronia; or, the Problem of Love

Whatever ailed Sophronia? I'd just turned her onto the river parkway, heading home, when she started to sputter and miss. She was losing power and losing speed, jerking and shuddering the way a standard-transmission car does when you're not giving her enough gas starting up in first gear. But I've been driving a standard for years, and this was definitely abnormal. I pulled Sophronia over as far as we could go, turned off her ignition, put on the flashers, pulled my CAA card out of my wallet, and reached for my cell phone. The phone's battery was flat. Oh *damn*.

I sat for a few minutes trying to think what to do next, as rush-hour traffic swirled around me. Then, greatly daring, I fired her up again, and we lurched and stuttered, flashers still on, to the next available exit. So it's illegal to turn left except for authorized vehicles. So sue me. I had to get this car off the road.

There, to my left, was the municipal vehicle maintenance shop, and the lights were still on, and there was a man getting into his van out front. I suppose I should have worried about my personal safety--it was an isolated spot--but that didn't occur to me. I needed help. I pulled into the parking lot, turned Sophronia off, and asked the man if he had a phone I could use. He said, "Sure. What's wrong with your car?" I told him, and he commanded me to pop up the hood. He was clearly one of those miraculous beings who knows his way around under a car's hood.

He checked the oil and various others of Sophronia's bodily fluids, turned on the engine, gunned it, listened intently, and then diagnosed the problem: humidity. He was right; it was very humid; I'd been having trouble keeping the inside windows defogged. And then I slapped my forehead, putting two and two together. Not an hour earlier, I'd taken Sophronia for a wash and a hot wax,. Because she is such a good car--hardly gives me a moment's worry --I'd treated her to the deluxe treatment, which gives a special wash to the delicate underparts, and water must have got in under the hood. So that's what had happened!

He said, "Just drive around the city for a while, until the engine heats up and dries off." That was easier said than done. Almost immediately, I found myself stranded half-way up a minor hill, without enough power to reach the top. His van pulled up behind me. "Here, I'll drive your car; you take my van." He nursed Sophronia skillfully over the top of the hill and through the slushy evening streets to the nearest gas station as I trailed behind in his van. He told me what potion to pour into the gas tank, to help dry her engine out. And then we chatted a bit about what we did for a living--he works with ex-cons, trying to help them find work--and he gave me his card and a sheaf of xeroxes about his operation. Before we went our separate ways, quite spontaneously and without the least hesitation, we hugged each other.

People chew away on the Problem of Evil: why, if there is a good and loving God, there is such pain and suffering in this world? I once ran into an atheist who cheerfully posited the opposite problem: what about the Problem of Love? What made this man, on a Friday night when he should be getting home, go to such trouble to help out a complete stranger? What is it that we see sometimes in each other, that recognition, that delighted acceptance? Why do we perform "acts of random kindness"? Evil's easy enough to trace; but where does it come from, this stuff, love?

Could be that this is all in and of ourselves--that we are the source of whatever goodness is on offer. Evolutionists have posited elaborate schemes to try to explain the origins of altruism as a sociobiological trait, but the explanations aren't really terribly convincing. It could be that doing good makes us feel good--but *why*? And I've seen too many acts of kindness that were clearly not based on the need to get ego-strokes. This man's rescue of Sophronia and me was not a feel-good sort of business; it was a matter-of-fact "this lady needs help and I'm going to help her, because that's as it should be."

What isn't possible, to my mind, is to land God with the Problem of Evil while claiming human credit for the Problem of Good. That is, it's somehow God's fault when things go wrong and people get hurt, but we get to claim the credit for everything kind and loving and altruistic. Try saying that with one breath and "Pol Pot" with another.

There is, always was, always will be, real goodness in many things and many people. There are those of us who believe that this goodness is partly a reflection of, partly a transmission of, some greater outer Good whose name we call God for short. And for all those who turn toward the Dark, there are those who seem to turn to God's Light as naturally as a newborn rooting for its mother's nipple. Why, except for the Problem of Good?

This man (I learned from the papers he gave me) suffered a terrible injustice when he was young; he spent years and years in hell. People have been pickled by bitterness for far less cogent causes. And yet he's chosen to spend his life fighting for the one group of people most unvalued, most at risk. He's struggling to find work for people just out of prison, and work in an atmosphere in which they'll be supported and accepted. He's chosen the way of Love. I got a small taste of that as he nursed my poor damp Sophronia, sputtering through the city evening.

Sometimes it seems like such a sea of darkness out there, a world full of cold selfishness and cruelty. But then there are dots of brightness, and more dots, until the darkness is as spangled with them as the night sky is with stars--until the darkness itself is overwhelmed and shrunk to nothing by their brightness. In India, people are crowding into the earthquake disaster zone, bringing x-ray machines and blankets, ignoring the officials and simply acting to help. And an ex-con in the city helped a stranger woman and her car get on their way home. None of it for any good reason, except Love.

By the time I left the city and headed homeward, Sophronia was warm, dry, and purring once again--she may be getting rusty about the fenders, but her engine still sounds brand new. We headed home through the dark, with the winking lights of farmhouses to right and left and the soft grey-golden glow of the city behind us. She's a good car, Sophronia. I'm glad she's okay.

(For Gaston Nicholas, and for my '93 Nissan Sentra, Sophronia)

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 03 Feb 2001
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