Friday, April 19, 2013

Our urgent mission to 'gentle the human'

I'm a little surprised to see how long it's been since I've posted here. Many excuses - a conference in Kentucky celebrating the work of Wendell Berry (which I wrote about on my project blog), finishing up the first set of revisions of the memoir (exhausting internal work), fundraising for my project, and then this week...

...this awful week.

Something surreal about watching things unfold this morning. CNN and MSNBC ought to be embarrassed for much of their coverage. On some of the alternative media websites and Facebook pages, there are thoughtful, disturbing, careful back stories to all this that challenge the tendency to knee-jerk responses, automatic stereotyping, and rush to judgment. What cable TV wants is to be there for the shootout, and waiting for that means filling a lot of empty airspace with nonsense. Watching these reporters being semi-hysterical amidst the police presence in Watertown reminds me of the guys who stand in their hip boots and raincoats while being battered by hurricane winds and rain shouting into their microphones, "The wind is really blowing now...!"

Hey, guys, we get it. There's a big storm going on.

How desperately we need the words that can help us understand our world, rather than inflame the passions that are destroying it. How desperately we need less vacuous over-the-top media hype and drama and more understanding of the world we have made.
Writing this just now, suddenly the name of a favorite poem came to mind, Linda Hogan's "Gentling the Human" (in her book, Rounding the Human Corners). One of my favorite poem titles for sure. It names a mission, an urgent one, for all of us who claim our places among members of this species. We can't go on like this. If we do, violence will continue to be part of our human story, and it will get worse and worse, because our stresses on this planet are only going to increase in the coming decades.

How can writers play a more effective role in that mission? For me, part of that is removing ourselves as much as possible from the hype and committing ourselves more and more to the mission of Hogan's poem - we need to do our part in gentling the human. We need to turn down the temperature of human discourse, not play into the emotions of fear and bitterness and lashing out as so much of the culture looks for scapegoats, places to vent resentment and revenge, for anyone to blame but ourselves.

What else should creative writing be for than to help us tell the truth about ourselves, with a good dose of honesty and humility, some light shed on our human predicament, some insight and even wisdom to help us through our days.

I know I don't want to add any measure of volatility to this poor sorry world wracked by so much violence within our communities.

So I returned this morning to Hogan's poem. It reminds me of what I believe, of what the human is really made, of that of which we are an integral, inseparable part.
And the human is clouds,
lung, mist, and heart,
a pulse at the wrist,
and the spirit,
which belongs to the mountain...
That we have torn these relations apart, that we have forgotten that of which we are made, is the great tragedy of our industrial world, of our western mechanistic, scientific approach to everything - taking things apart into their isolated pieces (like the pathological myth of the human individual) and then believing those pieces have meaning, coherence, reality, substance, all on their own, in their own little separate solitudes, their "lonelinesses."

No wonder we are a mess. Can writers help patch things back together? Can writers help the fragments begin again to cohere?

Hogan begins her poem:
There are five holy places in the body:
the heart, the spirit, the secret, the mysterious,
and the deeply hidden.

These are the ones with the power
of gentling the human.
I sit here with the TV on but muted. I read the posts of Facebook friends and exchange phone calls and email messages with friends and family. It has been a tough week. I have a message from one old dear friend and colleague who works for a Massachusetts member of Congress who emailed that a former intern in their office and his wife both had their left legs blown off and the wife may also lose her right foot. I repeat their first names to myself over and over to sear them into my heart.

A 19-year-old boy is now the subject of a massive manhunt. When his older brother was shot by police last night, the teenager sped away and in the process ran over his brother with the SUV they had just carjacked. He is considered armed and dangerous. He may choose not to be captured alive.

And this: that teenager, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was on the list of recipients of the 2011 City Scholarships for high school seniors, awarded by the City of Cambridge. Now armed and dangerous... I mean, don't we have some room in our hearts to recognize that there is a tragedy here, a painful story that led a very smart teenager to this moment in his young life?

Nineteen years old. Are we now so hardened that our hearts can't break a little bit for the still unknown story of how this boy came to this decision - to set a backpack down on a crowded Boston street and blow away the lives and bodies and limbs of 179 people?

Is it really so easy to separate his story from us? Yes, I guess it is. Sadly, that seems to be the case for millions and millions of us.

I won't let that happen, no matter how much it makes my heart break.

I'm for gentling the human - with urgency and passion, with deep commitment and a sense of connection to it all, the whole damn human story. We made this world. None of us escapes the meaning of that. None of us.

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