|6 Dec 2003 @ 18:51, by John Ashbaugh|
Excerpts from Small Wonder, an essay by Barbara Kingsolver,
from her book of essays, Small Wonder. (2002) Harper Collins. NY.
I believe the things we dread most can sometimes save us. I am losing faith in such a simple thing as despising an enemy with unequivocal righteousness.
A mirror held up to every moral superiority will show its precise image: The terrorist loves his truth as hard as I love mine; he has a mother who looks on her child with the same fierce pride I feel when I look at my own. Someone, somewhere, must wonder how I could love the boys who dropped the bombs that killed the humanitarian-aid workers in Kabul. We are all beasts in this kingdom, we have killed and been killed, and some new time has come to us in which we are called out to find another way to divide the world. Good and evil cannot be all there is.
. . . . . .
This new enemy is not a person or a place, it isn’t a country; it is a pure and fearsome ire as widespread as some raw element like fire. I can’t sensibly declare war on fire, or reasonably pretend that it lives in a secret hideout like some comic-book villain, irrationally waiting while my superhero locates it and then drags it out to the thrill of my applause. We try desperately to personify our enemy in this way, and who can blame us? It’s all we know how to do.
Now we are faced with something new: an enemy we can’t kill because it’s a widespread anger so much stronger than physical want that its foot soldiers gladly surrender their lives in its service. We who live in this moment are not its cause – instead, a thousand historic hungers blended to create it – but we are its chosen target: We threaten this hatred, and it grows. We smash the human vessels that contain it, and it doubles in volume like a magical liquid poison and pours itself into many more waiting vessels. We kill its leaders, and they swell to the size of martyrs and heroes, inspiring more martyrs and heroes. This terror now requires of us something that most of us haven’t considered; how to defuse a lethal enemy through some tactic more effective then simply going at it with the biggest stick at hand.
At a time when the modern imagination seems fully engaged in discussion of swords of every length and breadth, there’s little room for other kinds of talk. But I’m emboldened by Medea to speak up on behalf of psychological strategy. It’s not a simple-minded suggestion; her elixir of contentment is exactly as symbolic as Jason’s all-conquering sword, and the latter has by no means translated well into reality. The strategic difference is the capacity to understand this one thing: Some forms of enemy are made more deadly by killing. It would require the deepest possible shift of our hearts to live in this world of fundamental animosity and devote ourselves not to the escalating exertion to kill, but rather, to lulling animosity to sleep. Modern humanity may not be up to the challenge. Modern humanity may not have a choice.
And so we all might well feel baffled, as we awaken this morning to find the greatest part of our ways and means invested in the walls our nations have built between ourselves and those whom we wish to keep out. Throughout our modern history we have taken each step in the construction of defensive borders with few doubts in mind, from stones to bricks and mortar, to rifles and barbed wire, to missiles and tanks and the firestorm contained in an atom. And now here we are, devoted to the efforts of surveillance, repair, and dread.
Borders crumble; they won’t hold together on their own; we have to shore them up constantly. They are fortified and patrolled by armed guards, these fences that divide a party of elegant diners on one side from the children on the other whose thin legs curve like wishbones, whose large eyes peer through the barbed wire at so much food – there is no wall high enough to make good in such a neighborhood. For this, of course, is what the fences divide. Probably we began with more theoretical notions of ethnic purity – the wish to keep the apples out of our pines – and for the most of the last century we rationalized our walls in terms of ideology, but the Iron Curtain has dramatically fallen. Now we have fashioned from the crumbling boundaries of the Cold War a whole new shape of division, fundamentally between the rich and the poor. That chasm keeps growing; a quarter of the world’s poor are now poorer than they were fifteen years ago, having struggled only to lose ground.
A frozen groundswell just beyond our senses heaves and buckles, daring the world to dismantle these walls of enmity and use the stones to build ovens for baking bread. It would be the death of something, and the life of something. Somewhere there must be a door through. The alternative is only to construct higher walls, and the higher they grow, the harder they will fall. It’s hard to imagine a more frightening time than this.
The natural laws we have believed in and taught our children have sometimes been found to be not natural laws at all, but rather fearsome constructs of our own making, undermined by the evidence. And among those mistakes there is this: All of the promises of politicians, general, madmen, and crusaders that war can create peace have yet to be borne out.
. . . . .
The enemy may not be exactly what we think. It may be a force that resides in many quarters, including inside our skin, in our very words, the questions we frame, the things we love most, the things we can’t live without. Our greatest dread may be our salvation.
I understand that we’ll have lost everything if a hateful enemy can crush us and reconstruct us in its angry image, but what other door may lead out of this dark room? I’ve felt outrage I was sure would burn me alive. Some nights I’ve lain awake wondering how to keep on living while someone, somewhere, despises me and wishes so many of us dead because of our faith or nationality, assigning to us transgressions I can scarcely grasp. I wonder how to stay calm with so much beauty at stake, being scorched from my line of sight as trees fall and sacred places are ground to dust. I find it insufferable to bear silent witness to the flesh-and-bone devastations of war, and bitterly painful to be cast sometimes as a traitor to the homeland I love, simply because I raise questions. I find myself in a strange niche, reviled by some compatriots because I can’t praise war as the best answer, and reviled everywhere else because of what my nation does.
Political urgencies come and go, but it’s a fair enough vocation to strike one match after another against the dark isolation, when spectacular arrogance rules the day and tries to force hope into hiding. It seems to me that there is still so much to say that I had better raise up a yell across the fence. I have stories of things I believe in: a persistent river, a forest on the edge of night, the religion inside a seed, the startle of wingbeats when a spark of red life flies against all reason out of the darkness.
6 Dec 2003 @ 20:09 by : :}
We are the gray goo that lubricates, that space between dark and light? Neat essay :}
7 Dec 2003 @ 09:26 by shawa : Or...
...the gold that holds Creation together? Thanks, John.
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