Current Affairs

Holy Days

The End of Summer has become a holy season for me. It's not just the waning of summer heat - although I am apt to fall on my knees in gratitude the first night the temperature dips into the sixties. These weeks have become a time-out-of-time to ponder, reassess, and move forward. It starts around my birthday in late August, which I've often thought of it as a last gasp opportunity (after the New Year and Lent) for "resolutions" and the possibility of actually following through with a few of them. It continues through the early weeks of September. In recent years, the anniversary of my son's cancer diagnosis has added to the pondering, and to its complexity.

A bit of wisdom I feel I've gleaned from this is how perspective shifts over time. This year, Ben called me the day before what is known among a lot of cancer survivors as "D-Day" to confirm that it was indeed that next day - a very good sign that the memory is receding a bit. He was planning on celebrating the six year anniversary with a heroic bike ride up a very steep, 2-mile mountain road near his college - six times (he did it!). He said what I have often thought in recent years: "If I had only known during those years how things were going to turn out, it would have been so much easier."

Yes, indeed. That is what perspective is all about. Six years out, things look different than we saw and lived them at the time. From my own perspective as a mother, I was almost entirely focused at that time on protecting my child,  whatever it took. But the fact that I was also responsible to Ben's three siblings - all young adults at the time: a brother beginning his sophomore year in college, a recently graduated sister starting her first week at work, and another sister who had just become a mother - called me out of that laser beam focus occasionally. My own head and heart would be crumbling with despair at his latest complication and his overall prognosis, but I would gather myself together to explain things to my children in the best light possible, with hope and the details that supported that hope. Ben was strong and young, he was getting the best care possible, we were with him day and night. Telling the story to them helped me reframe it for myself. And it was all true, as true as my fear.

Even in regular day-to-day life, I've found this to be a helpful technique in gaining perspective. During stressful times, telling your story from a different angle - in the third person or from a different time frame can truly help one get a grip on the complex reality of it.  "It was a strange year, full of change and confusion ..." or "She sometimes wonders if she can make it to Friday, much less to old age." A bit dramatic, yes, but somehow seeing myself as a character in an un-folding story, or an actor in the middle of a movie, helps me see that more is coming that I don't know yet, and that I have a hand in shaping at least a part of the tale. 

This is the key, I think. To somehow get yourself to wondering what will happen next, instead of dreading what you most fear. Curiosity instead of cringing. One interesting thing about life is that we never know the ending. And as comforting as it might be to have someone whisper to us what happens next, what kind of life would that be? We need possibility in all its limitlessness - we need the capacity to realize hope, even in the darkest times.

Pema Chodron was one of my guides during that hard time and still. "The gloriousness of life and the wretchedness of life need each other. . . We can become quite arrogant whenever everything is going our way." Wretchedness, and even the depression that sometimes follow, is the muck we work with to create something interesting at least, if not always beautiful. We have to find a way to open up to "the whole thing," she says.

I think we must have an innate capacity to do this. The anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11 falls during these holy weeks too. This tenth anniversary seemed to me to focus less on politics and more on individual and communal loss, and love for one another. Watching footage from that time and listening to the immediate commentaries, what you heard from the "(wo)man on the street" is not the rhetoric we heard from our leaders justifying retaliation. What we heard was heartbroken grief at the immensity of the loss of human life and wondrous gratitude and love toward the people who reached out to one another that day. You hear deep pride in our resiliency, and in our ability to suffer great loss and open up instead of shut down. A glass of water to a stranger, a held hand, and "are you okay" echoing all over the blasted cities and rippling outward.

Because it is possible to let sorrow and grief and shocking twists of fate soften us, I want to believe in it as a way forward. It is hard to stay there, as we saw post-9/11 and as we witness in other tragedies. There is choice in there someplace - to cringe and harden or to reach out and wonder. From my current vantage point in middle-age, I can tell you that on a personal level it is an ongoing struggle that does not get easier. But it does get interesting, more so with each year. And that is why all anniversaries are worth celebrating, or at least observing - the ones obviously life-giving like a birthday, and the ones that continue to shape a life, which are often hugely difficult at the time. It is so big, so complex, so difficult, and so beautiful. C'est la vie. In late summer, I am reminded to keep my eyes open wide, seeking wonder, giving gratitude.  


Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

- Wendell Berry, in the Autumn 2001 edition of Orion Magazine

I. The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day.

II. This optimism rested on the proposition that we were living in a “new world order” and a “new economy” that would “grow” on and on, bringing a prosperity of which every new increment would be “unprecedented”.

III. The dominant politicians, corporate officers, and investors who believed this proposition did not acknowledge that the prosperity was limited to a tiny percent of the world’s people, and to an ever smaller number of people even in the United States; that it was founded upon the oppressive labor of poor people all over the world; and that its ecological costs increasingly threatened all life, including the lives of the supposedly prosperous.

IV. The “developed” nations had given to the “free market” the status of a god, and were sacrificing to it their farmers, farmlands, and communities, their forests, wetlands, and prairies, their ecosystems and watersheds. They had accepted universal pollution and global warming as normal costs of doing business.

V. There was, as a consequence, a growing worldwide effort on behalf of economic decentralization, economic justice, and ecological responsibility. We must recognize that the events of September 11 make this effort more necessary than ever. We citizens of the industrial countries must continue the labor of self-criticism and self-correction. We must recognize our mistakes.

VI. The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to “grow” and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superseded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all.

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free.

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science that we marketed and taught to the world would become available, not just to recognized national governments, which possess so uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also to “rogue nations”, dissident or fanatical groups and individuals - whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is judged by the nations to be illegitimate.

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good, including our homelands and our lives.

X. We had accepted too the corollary belief that an economy (either as a money economy or as a life-support system) that is global in extent, technologically complex, and centralized is invulnerable to terrorism, sabotage, or war, and that it is protectable by “national defense”

XI. We now have a clear, inescapable choice that we must make. We can continue to promote a global economic system of unlimited “free trade” among corporations, held together by long and highly vulnerable lines of communication and supply, but now recognizing that such a system will have to be protected by a hugely expensive police force that will be worldwide, whether maintained by one nation or several or all, and that such a police force will be effective precisely to the extent that it oversways the freedom and privacy of the citizens of every nation.

XII. Or we can promote a decentralized world economy which would have the aim of assuring to every nation and region a local self-sufficiency in life-supporting goods. This would not eliminate international trade, but it would tend toward a trade in surpluses after local needs had been met.

XIII. One of the gravest dangers to us now, second only to further terrorist attacks against our people, is that we will attempt to go on as before with the corporate program of global “free trade”, whatever the cost in freedom and civil rights, without self-questioning or self-criticism or public debate.

XIV. This is why the substitution of rhetoric for thought, always a temptation in a national crisis, must be resisted by officials and citizens alike. It is hard for ordinary citizens to know what is actually happening in Washington in a time of such great trouble; for all we know, serious and difficult thought may be taking place there. But the talk that we are hearing from politicians, bureaucrats, and commentators has so far tended to reduce the complex problems now facing us to issues of unity, security, normality, and retaliation.

XV. National self-righteousness, like personal self-righteousness, is a mistake. It is misleading. It is a sign of weakness. Any war that we may make now against terrorism will come as a new installment in a history of war in which we have fully participated. We are not innocent of making war against civilian populations. The modern doctrine of such warfare was set forth and enacted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who held that a civilian population could be declared guilty and rightly subjected to military punishment. We have never repudiated that doctrine.

XVI. It is a mistake also - as events since September 11 have shown - to suppose that a government can promote and participate in a global economy and at the same time act exclusively in its own interest by abrogating its international treaties and standing apart from international cooperation on moral issues.

XVII. And surely, in our country, under our Constitution, it is a fundamental error to suppose that any crisis or emergency can justify any form of political oppression. Since September 11, far too many public voices have presumed to “speak for us” in saying that Americans will gladly accept a reduction of freedom in exchange for greater “security”. Some would, maybe. But some others would accept a reduction in security (and in global trade) far more willingly than they would accept any abridgement of our Constitutional rights.

XVIII. In a time such as this, when we have been seriously and most cruelly hurt by those who hate us, and when we must consider ourselves to be gravely threatened by those same people, it is hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary for being difficult.

XIX. Even now we dare not forget that since the attack of Pearl Harbor - to which the present attack has been often and not usefully compared - we humans have suffered an almost uninterrupted sequence of wars, none of which has brought peace or made us more peaceable.

XX. The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence. If we are serious about innovation, must we not conclude that we need something new to replace our perpetual “war to end war?”

XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.

XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable.

XXIII. We must not again allow public emotion or the public media to caricature our enemies. If our enemies are now to be some nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know those enemies. Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts, and language of the Islamic nations. And our leaders should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us.

XXIV. Starting with the economies of food and farming, we should promote at home, and encourage abroad, the ideal of local self-sufficiency. We should recognize that this is the surest, the safest, and the cheapest way for the world to live. We should not countenance the loss or destruction of any local capacity to produce necessary goods

XXV. We should reconsider and renew and extend our efforts to protect the natural foundations of the human economy: soil, water, and air. We should protect every intact ecosystem and watershed that we have left, and begin restoration of those that have been damaged.

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a “new economy”, but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.