One need not believe that ours are the worst of times to believe they are pretty bad. It’s not just that the U.S. economy is making a slow recovery from a Great Recession and that many people are un- or underemployed or that wages are stagnant while top executive incomes soar astronomically; or that the United States leads the world in incarceration rates, mainly of minority populations, particularly of young men; or that we were terrorized on Sept. 11, 2001, and then launched a war of “shock and awe” on a nation that had nothing to do with the events of that horrible day, a war that has left thousands dead or maimed in body and spirit, both in the United States and in Iraq. It is not even that we are collectively altering the chemistry and physics of the planet, to our own ruin, or at least the ruin of the lives of our grandchildren. Any one of these crises would warrant deep concern and urgent action. Taken together—and other challenges could be added—it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But even that is not what makes the case for this being among the worst of times.
What make this such a particularly troubled time are the intractability of the disputes, the endless assertions and counterassertions, the bawling and the din from entrenched ideological foes, the seemingly insurmountable divisions and recriminations. When I am particularly feeling the weight of all this, I often turn to a lovely poem from Walt Whitman for a reminder of a more expansive vision of human community.
To Him That Was Crucified
My spirit to yours dear brother,
Do not mind because many sounding your name do not understand you,
I do not sound your name, but I understand you,
I specify you with joy O my comrade to salute you, and to salute
those who are with you, before and since, and those to come also,
That we all labor together transmitting the same charge and succession,
We few equals indifferent of lands, indifferent of times,
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes, allowers of all theologies,
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the
disputers nor any thing that is asserted,
We hear the bawling and din, we are reach’d at by divisions,
jealousies, recriminations on every side,
They close peremptorily upon us to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and
down till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races,
ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers as we are.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” To envision oneself on that arc may provide no small measure of consolation. But is it enough to transcend the hatreds and hostilities as if they were “symmetrical warfare”? Are there no discernments to be made among the disputers and theologies and worldviews? A pox on both your houses? Is the justice at the end of the arc not to be pursued passionately, if also compassionately and irenically in the meantime? Are we not called to take a stand when precious lives and essential values are at stake? But how do we do this in the spirit of Whitman’s brotherly and sisterly love, not just for those we see as victims but also for those we see as victimizers? When I feel lost amid the welter of competing and even vicious voices, I return to a magical poem by Seamus Heaney. To what or whom do we belong? What referent point gives us compass and rudder on a sea of troubles?
From the Republic of Conscience
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs
woman having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
The Republic of Conscience is both familiar and strange, both intimate and distant, both calm and demanding. But if we were centered in that kind of gentle yoking of opposites, would we not be better equipped to enact the humanizing vision of Whitman’s poem? Would we not be better able to promote both justice and peace? But such a lofty vision of the self may lose track of its humble origins, in sea salt and tears. Better, if we’re feeling too grand, with our vision of a better world, to be reminded of our common humanity and the difficulty of knowing even ourselves in any definitive way. One of Emily Dickinson’s sharp little meditations can help.
To hang our head—ostensibly—
And subsequent, to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind—
Affords the sly presumption
That in so dense a fuzz—
You—too—take Cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of Gauze!
I don’t think Dickinson’s epistemological caution subverts the Republic of Conscience or the need to act boldly for whatever modicum of justice we might realize on that long arc of the universe, but it does remind us we are humble ambassadors, not mighty kings. But is this possible for mere human beings, greater than the beasts but lesser than the angels? Do we have exemplars who prove that even in the truly worst of times, human compassion can remain upright without succumbing to self-righteousness? Etty Hillesum is the exemplar to whom I turn for an image of what a human can be even in the worst of circumstances.
For Etty Hillesum, 1914-1943
An inner disposition of readiness; poise
with ballast; more dynamic than mere stolidity;
imperturbability without iron or rust.
The equananimous suffers surprise
without panic, as a gyroscope spins and bobs
in its groove, an inner-eye always attending,
a watchman with night before him, and behind,
a sleeping city, a mother dozing
but alert to her infant’s every breath.
What the hawk possesses, hungry but patient
for prey; what the mouse or rabbit lacks utterly,
all nerves, all scamper, the victim mentality.
The preeminent virtue of a young Jewish woman,
who found freedom in compassion for her fellow deportees
on the way to the camps when she could have escaped.
As if death for her were the dwindling hum
of a tuning fork, perfected in silence,
a standard by which to set one’s heart.
Equanimity sums up for me the psychic or spiritual or existential virtue that runs through the previous three poems. Whitman and his unnamed comrade, Heaney’s ambassador of conscience, Dickinson’s self-effacing mind, all move toward a certain balance that can’t be shaken, or at least not unhinged, even in and by the worst of times, of recriminations and counter-recriminations. Equanimity is the mark of Ignatius’ contemplative in action, of Newman’s educated citizen of philosophical mind. It is the life-giving hum of the human heart deeply and truly tuned.