Domestic tranquility has been taking a beating lately. Ditto the “pursuit of happiness,” and any number of other noble sentiments enshrined in the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that preceded it by 11 years.
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see” wrote the poet Theodore Roethke in 1960. Assuming he was right, what we are seeing now is the eye of a hurricane, only metaphorical at the moment, in which there swirls interpenetrating currents of a pandemic, a violently imposed upheaval in race relations, a worldwide economic slowdown, and a presidential administration defined by chaos, conflict and calumny.
And an election (in less than five months!) that will surely be among the most bitter and strange ever conducted.
People die every day in horrid circumstances, but to behold it specifically, visually, individually, is to move beyond abstraction and thrust it into the particularity of the life we are watching expire, from the perch of our own particularity as vulnerable human beings…
Amidst it all, deep and guilt-ridden questions persist that have followed us throughout our checkered history as a revolutionary, conquering people who forcibly removed the original inhabitants of these lands and then subjugated great numbers of another race, bringing them here from a distant continent in chains to help establish what eventually became the most powerful economy and nation-state in human history.
So we have a little work to do, it would seem, and surely I am not the only one considering that one way to look at this period of upheaval is that it is offering us the perfect conditions to do that work. “Out of crisis, opportunity” goes the old Taoist dictum, and boy oh boy, have we ever given ourselves a crisis.
Like everyone, I have been struggling to keep up with the tsunami of news and opinion, and to stay at least somewhat buoyant amidst so much that demands sober and searching reflection. I’ve been trying to find an emotional/intellectual anchor, an organizing principle that can help me order so many varied and discordant threads, so much that is competing for my attention, consideration and understanding.
And I keep coming back to the individual person, the unique human being that I and everyone else is as we attempt to navigate our way through a wider world that is rife with complexity and challenge, inspiration and misinformation.
In that world, sincere competing factions engage in age-old debates about the best ways to organize society and promote human flourishing. And ever intruding into those debates: evil purveyors of propaganda, seeking only to amass power so they can wield it to their advantage, others be damned.
Against that backdrop, I hold fast to this foundational belief: It all starts and ends with the individual’s response to the conditions of life, to the demands and seductions of the world. The fate of that world is nothing more nor less than the mashup of all those responses.
So where does that leave the individual?
For the past two weeks, millions of individuals around the world have been down there with George Floyd’s neck under Derek Chauvin’s knee. The heinousness of that image couldn’t help but sweep up every human being still in possession of an ounce of compassion, allowing us to identify, whatever our color or gender or nationality, with a profound sense of violation, of beholding pure evil and recoiling from its wanton, cruel disregard for human life.
People die every day in horrid circumstances, but to behold it specifically, visually, individually, is to move beyond abstraction and thrust it into the particularity of the life we are watching expire, from the perch of our own particularity as vulnerable human beings, struggling to imagine (and recoil from imagining) it happening to ourselves.
And if you’re black in the United States, the sordid lingering of racism ensures that your vulnerability will be more acute and fearful than it is for your white brothers and sisters.
So we come to the competing choruses of these fraught times, singing past each other with “Black Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter,” “Cops’ Lives Matter,” “Buildings Matter, Too” and so on, in a now-familiar debate conducted via three-word slogans that serve as stand-ins for a whole set of world views.
We’ve all seen the script now—first, the urgent proclamation in the wake of another atrocity committed against an African American: “Black Lives Matter.”
The rejoinder by intolerant (or merely clueless) white persons: “ALL Lives Matter” (and variations therefrom).
The (sometimes patient, sometimes not) explanation by black persons or woke white persons that of course, all lives matter, but those words aren’t at issue with white people, whose lives aren’t under constant potential threat merely because of their skin color.
Someday, someday, PleaseGodHelpUsSomeday, we will all deem “Black Lives Matter” signs as unnecessary, as relics of a bygone, less enlightened time. Humans being the conflicted, tribal species they persist in being, though, I fear that time is a long way off.
So what do we do in the meantime?
We return to that Constitution, and that Declaration, and the lofty aspirations they harbor that are derived in no small measure from the religious tradition that most of the Founders either ascribed to or used as a jumping off point for their own expressions of reverence for the sovereignty and sanctity of every individual human being.
Some 2,000 years after its supposed utterance by Jesus to a group of “tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the law,” the parable of the lost sheep could usefully serve as the small print behind every “Black Lives Matter” sign.
“He told them this parable. ‘Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?’ When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends, his family and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'”
— Luke 15:3–6
Perhaps we should add another sign to the various iterations above: “Lost Sheep Matter.” In American history, blacks have been those lost sheep, though they haven’t been so much “lost” as cast aside and prevented from rejoining the flock, as if an actual sheep had a patch of dark fur that forever saw it rejected by other sheep as not a sheep at all, but some separate, lowly creature worthy only of disdain (or worse—enslavement).
But the parable is universal, too. If in a larger and more timeless sense we see all humans as lost and wandering in the wilderness of their imperfection and mortality, keeping their true vulnerability at bay as best they are able, we can begin to grasp the import and beauty of this parable, which reflects a key underpinning of our democracy and the Judeo-Christian tradition from which it largely emerged.
More than Hinduism, more than Buddhism and Islam and most all other religious traditions, Judeo-Christianity emphasizes the ultimate importance and preciousness of individual human lives. We read it in the lost sheep parable, in the lines from the Book of Matthew about not one sparrow falling to the ground “without its Father knowing it,” and from Isaiah, where God proclaims “you are precious and honored in my sight.”
We see it again, most dramatically, in the story of God assuming human form and living life as a lowly carpenter, eating and drinking and working and suffering as his fellow humans did, dying more terribly than most all of them died.
At every turn, in all these tales, it is the individual person who matters, ultimately and forever. So much so that the tradition’s prevalent myth about human life is that each person (absent hateful behavior in this life) will eventually join with his or her Creator in the hereafter, eternal souls all, precious in each other’s and their Creator’s eyes.
This is a far cry from individuals ultimately dissolving into emptiness, at long last escaping a wheel of earth-bound suffering within the delusion of personal identity.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not trying to convert anyone here. Indeed, I do not identify as Christian myself. (Several Founders didn’t either, adopting more Deist views of devotion to nature and reason.) I harbor no belief in a helpful God awaiting us in any hereafter.
But we can’t really understand and appreciate the visionary aspects underpinning this nation’s founding documents if we don’t grasp the lofty notions of human worth propagated by the religious tradition the Founders mostly practiced and drew upon.
Nor can we appreciate how egregiously we violate those notions in denying the full humanity of anyone based on race, gender, class, or any other feature endemic to them as a child of God.
“What can I do?” I have heard more than one person ask plaintively in recent weeks. We are so small, and the world is so big, its problems so daunting and seemingly intractable.
“Not much at all” is the answer to that question, if one views it from the standpoint of one in 8 billion. But if we loop back to Theodore Roethke again, we see him writing this, four years after “In a Dark Time,” not far from the end of his life, when his eye beheld this in “The Far Field”:
A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born falls on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.
When the murmur of the absolute falls on my naked ears, I know from there down to my toes how almost unbearably precious this life is, how tenderly we are to hold it, and how fiercely we are to protect it.
And not just mine, either. The immensity includes everyone and all the waves they make, in the varied ways they break. Yours, too. And George Floyd’s, his loose wandering fire now setting the world ablaze in ways he could not have fathomed.
It is perhaps the supreme irony that George Floyd, hapless hero that he has become, has rendered absurd any question about whether his life mattered. The tragedy is he had to lose it before that became all too clear. In a democracy that is built on freedom and woven together in reverence for the dignity of every person, life itself should be all one needs to matter, as everyone does.
Gil Scott-Heron never wrote an uninteresting song in his career as a musician with an activist bent, asking unsettling questions…
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