People can face the truth
Three birds flew off the tip of a boulder that jutted above the surface of the water. It was like a tiny island, barely visible to the naked eye. Yet the truth was that below the water lay a boulder so formidable that hundreds of years of bad weather had barely moved it. Old sea charts warned seafaring vessels not to come too close, lest it rip through their hulls.
As my kayak glid close, I looked down in awe. In the depths was the the earth's past: an ice age mountain ridge, submerged and eroded as temperatures had risen. It's power was frightening, and I could have avoided it, but there was something about facing the depths that was freeing. "Die Wahrheit ist dem Menschen zumutbar" - People can face the truth - a quote shared with me by a friend from the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann suddenly made perfect sense. I would no longer call this a little island, make up stories about its smallness or give it false names. Neither would I ever know it completely, or be able to say exactly how it came to be. Many things about it would remain encapsulated in that time when it was formed; all we had were the pointers of science. And what happened to it in the microcosm of every moment, as the water continued to form and change it? The truth seemed so difficult to grasp - so complex, so impossible - yet it was there if one bothered to look.
Recently, the truth has seemed more fragile than ever. People have tired of it, preferring simpler explanations. Whole communities - whole movements - collect around these simpler explanations, which are loud and crass so as to drown out the many contradictions they raise. Like the tiny island above the water, poor truth is barely recognizable.
My own experience of seeking the truth is that it is frustrating because it is never-ending. Just as you think you have seen something clearly, new questions obscure it like the current that stirs up the mud on the river bed. It requires an unending willingness to face questions that may always remain unanswered. It means being prepared to live with the unease of not knowing and sometimes, if not often, concluding that you were wrong. It is the roughage of our existence, not the fast food of untruths that appeals to so many.
As I look out of my window from my writing desk over the lake, which continually reforms what is left of that Ice Age mountain ridge, I feel exhilarated. Beyond the next big island there is a tiny island with birds perched on it. I know there is much more to it than the naked eye can see. Underneath is a great rock that holds many mysteries, and somewhere inside each of these is a kernel of truth.
Sticky bowls and glasses from the night's teenage party await washing. The towels hang over the dock rails, saturated by the night's dew; and the socks and shirts lay scattered, not carelessly but freely, in the confidence that they will be there when their young owners awaken and seek them. The birds chirp over this cloudy summer morning, with so much to accomplish as the light hours of their Nordic home reduce. Contrary to our fantasy that nature is always in the now, the birds' primary concern is the future.
My island home is inhabited by the young who are beginning to awaken after the late night. What will I tell them about this new day? How can I hide my sadness that youth have murdered youth, and that man seems to be devouring himself? How can I hide my dread that humans seem to be abandoning the search for truth in favor of lies construed as new truths by fictitious tribes that grow further apart? Where can I find the courage to face this new day in a way that gives my children and their friends a sense of future they would like to live with?
Bastille Day itself was a bloody time, as was the time that preceded it, and the time that came after it. When people in Nice looked into the skies at the fireworks, they looked up beyond those times to the ideals that arose out of that day, and changed the standards we live by forever. We don't always live up to them, in fact, man and his governments offend them everyday, but they are there and they are certainly worth living for. There is meaning in liberty and freedom, and sadly the young driver of the lethal vehicle, as with so many others who wreak such destruction, could not find it.
The smell of cooked breakfast floats unhindered through the house. In fact, it is one of those things it isn't possible to stop. The young don't understand my furrowed eyebrows. They have the courage and energy of new leaves. There is nothing for me to say. My job is to have faith: in them, in the resilience of meaning and in Bastille Day.
"Why did you do it?" I asked her.
We were in her boxy, run-down row house with oppressively low ceilings in a border outpost near the Brazilian-Paraguayan border. The rust had eaten the paint on the grills outside the window, a last defence against anyone who might come to get her. But all that didn't matter any more. She was three years short of a century, and life had already been long enough. Perhaps too long for living with the burden of reflection. She and her husband had been Belgian Blackshirts who had worked hard for Hitler in their native country before and during the war. Now she lived here, in a place where she and her husband had hoped they might not be judged. They had successfully fled from justice, but her husband was dead, and her life, which was all around us, felt anemic. Her only biological child had left for Europe to become a socialist and learn Russian. The part-time housekeeper and I seemed to be the last ones left. I knew I would have to judge, but where would my judgment fall?
She smiled warmly, as though pleased to be able to face the question at least once before she died. She had run from it all these years, but death makes many fears seem small.
"No one remembers the dangers that communism posed. It was infiltrating our civilization like vermin and we simply had to take measures to fight it off with all our might. There was no other way." She said it without affectation, and although I wished I could find some sign of insincerity in her face, I couldn't.
"What about the Jews and the Holocaust?" I asked.
"Well, they were a part of it, of course, and some sacrifices had to be made for our cause. Germany deserved to be made great again and we wanted Belgium to be a part of that."
Why couldn't I get angry at this former Blackshirt? It wasn't because she was old or frail or disadvantaged. It was because I heard the echoes of our own time coming through - our doubts, our fear and our folly. I began to imagine a future interview with any one of a number of well-meaning persons who thought any European country would be better off without the EU or that America would be safer with walls. It takes place decades after the devastation of the next war and runs something like this:
"Why did you do it?" a young interviewer asks.
"No one remembers the threat that globalization and its greedy elites posed. It was a vermin creeping into our lives that threatened to steal everything from our jobs to our way of life. There was no other way."
"But what of the migrants?" the young interviewer asks, trying to keep her calm.
"Well, they were a part of it, of course and some sacrifices had to be made for our cause. We wanted to make our country great again."
During my journey into history I have sometimes been told, even by some historians, that we should not draw too many comparisons between the present and the past. This is to neglect the all-important detail. I agree only in one perspective: The past has been misused in the least informed moments of contemporary debate, but that does not make it irrelevant to interpreting the developments we see in the world today. I share the story, above, to illustrate why. I felt moved to share it (before some of it becomes part of a book I am writing about my journey) by the dread I feel about the loss of Elie Wiesel who was a part of our collective conscience and a significant force for humanity. History can repeat itself because we are human. It need not repeat itself because we are human.
The never-ending hope of one
Twice in the last month, on two separate occasions in completely different contexts, I have listened to performers singing deep, guttural chants of the sort that makes you wonder whether it comes from the your own insides or the outside. You may wonder whether I have joined a spiritual sect, but no. I was simply struck by the coincidence, and now I begin to wonder whether there is a pattern. Is there something that is happening to humans that evokes the need for chanting in different places at this particular juncture in history?
Tibetan chanting is mostly a preparation for entering a state of meditation where there is emptiness and no duality. Without duality there is no fight, no hubris, no reason for fear or greatness, no reason for fretfully seeking meaning through violence. There is no 'other.' In fact, when you listen to it, you can feel yourself falling into a million light particles that are one and the same with the shining universe. It seemed a dream or a wish, but in the fifteen minutes that I listened to it, it was real, and all of the division we see in the world today was no more than a dreadful illusion. I glanced down the rows in the audience. Even those whom I knew to be grey-suited officials by day, willingly succumbed in the darkness of the performance to the beckoning, which was no beckoning at all.
A few weeks later I sat in a concert hall where the otherwise light and playful summer concert began with a single-voice rendition of the Dies Irae, a Latin hymn about the Day of Wrath created by western monks during the thirteenth century. It became the most quoted melody in musical literature. As the soloist walked down the aisle towards the stage drilling the sound into us and evoking it from us (I don't know which), the Eastern chanting of the few weeks' before ran into the West's hymn about the Day of Judgement, when souls gathered before the throne of God to be sent to heaven or to burn in the flames of hell. It is hardly a unifying legend, and the chant of the East seemed at first to laugh at the folly of western division before readily forming a continuity of sound from East to West that overcame this sorry tale, a by-product of the perceived need to divide in order to rule. This is the oldest trick in the book exercised by those who aspire to power and those who are paranoid about the loss of it, and an alarming number of humans seem to fall for it throughout time.
Yet, what stays with me from these experiences of the spring as, like everyone else, I have watched and listened to what seems like the unraveling of the world, is the unstoppable blending of two sounds that really are a single sound coming from deep within the human spirit. It is the chant of humanity which is the excruciating pain of division, our suffering, and the never-ending hope of one.