Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2016-2017
Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
Now we will all count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness…
—Excerpted from “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda
Good words are hard to come by these days. I struggle to write at all. I find myself saying “Not another word. Not one!” I’d like us all to take Neruda’s advice and “stop for one second and not speak any language,” and then share in the sudden uneasiness of silence—together.
The times are deafening, cacophonous, shrill. The rhetoric of hate has reached fever pitch from the headlines to the comics, from the syndicated columnists to the letters to the editor, from the street to the Senate. We are bombarded. You know as well as I so there’s no need to further twist the knife. What is needed is not the placebo of cheap hope, not escapism, not denial—if that’s even a viable option. In my struggle to find solid ground, I take comfort—cold comfort—in Rainer Marie Rilke’s insight: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”
In times like these words cannot suffice. Only actions that echo from the still small voice of conscience offer modest succor. These are someplace to begin. Random acts of humanity speak louder than words. Wendell Berry wrote in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”
“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute…. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias…. Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. Listen to carrion—put your ear close and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.” Now that’s something to listen to!
In dark moments of history such as we are wading through I’m reminded of a couple earlier random acts of humanity which offered a moment of respite from the fray.
In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deeply distressed by the anguish in the bloody, tear gas-filled streets outside the Democratic Convention hall in Chicago, and at great political risk, addressed the delegates with an impromptu invitation:
“And may we, for just one moment, in sober reflection, in serious purpose, may we just quietly and silently—each in our own way—pray for our country.” He then proceeded to recite the Peace Prayer of Francis of Assisi. Imagine that! Compassion trumped secular decorum, let alone protocol.
During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, Vedran Smailovic, “the cellist of Sarajevo,” played Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” in the bombed out ruins of the city library. Despite the facts of missiles and war, he played on.
Are these acts absurd? Ones that don’t compute? Do they at least give us pause to reflect and breathe? To breathe in the madness and hate that swirls around us, and exhale light and love? How does one respond in the face of unspeakable suffering that is personal, communal, national, universal?
I recall Mitch Synder, of the Community for Creative Nonviolence in Washington, DC, often saying: “If you really don’t feel there’s anything you can do for the person you see lying on the sidewalk as you pass, at least look into their eyes and acknowledge them. Say hello.”
These words are not meant to be pabulum to assuage our consciences or minimize our fundamental responsibilities to one another. They are simply the brainstorm, or perhaps better said, the heart-storm of this writer in a dim hour.
I am seeking a toehold of sensibility in the current morass of national politics which is deeply embedded in a subculture of hate. This subculture is as ubiquitous as it is caustic. Its breadth exceeds political party affiliation, region, class, even race. No ideology can contain its vitriol, let alone its logic-defying analysis.
Sally Kempton wrote: “It is hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head.” How do we dismantle the cerebral outposts of this subculture which only serve to reinforce fear, misunderstanding, isolation, and ultimately rock solid hate?
How can we support one another? What are the cairns along the path that will lead us to be fully who we can be? That is, human beings. After all, we are not hard-wired to be haters.
At a bare minimum the advice for life that writer Anne Lamott received from her father is worthy of consideration. “Don’t be an asshole and make sure everybody eats.” If our domestic and foreign policy began with such rudimentary, if not crude, advice, surely this world would be a more peaceful place.
In the May 2004 issue of Orion, Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “Patience is more powerful than anger. Humor more attractive than fear. Pay attention. Listen.”
In closing, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s immortal words echo: “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
P.S. These lines were written in the early hours of Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016.
—John Heid is a member of Mariposa Community in Tucson.