Where Hope Survives
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings
-The Lake Isle of Innisfree, William Butler Yeats
This season has its rituals. We bridge present and past through our traditions, the touchstones of surety that tell us that, no matter how far afield we’ve roamed, the most important things remain constant. We have our songs, our meals, our customs and the trappings we create to define what this season means to each of us. And while much of this is shared with family, friends and acquaintances, in the end it’s personal, and each of us ascribes meaning to every piece of the season, and we weigh it accordingly. We create the guidelines that govern our holidays.
For me, the days in winter start early. I rise, pull on a sweatshirt, make sure the coffee is prepared, then head outside with the dog. On the best mornings, the sky is so blue that it cuts the eye, and the air so crisp that it seems to penetrate my lungs with a pungency that fills my soul. On these mornings the street is quiet. No one stirs, and the only companions on our walk are the birds – cardinals and mourning doves – that share my sense of time.
In winter, walking with my dog who always gives me the time I need, I meditate on where I am and where I’ve been. It’s one of my rituals, embedded within a season that speaks of peace and demands reflection. I would not change it even if I could. My morning walks center me. My meditations define me. I do some of my best thinking with Lucas, neither of us in a particular hurry even on the coldest mornings.
This year in particular it’s been a challenge to round back to that notion of peace. The world has shown itself once again to be a harsh place, governed by values that translate our humanity into profit-and-loss, or, worse, deny it altogether in those who do not think or look or act like we do. I believe it has always been so, but this year has hinted that these dehumanizing tendencies run deeper and stronger than I had imagined. In the face of this, it becomes a challenge to kindle the optimism and hope that the season traditionally imparts. Even so, it is a challenge I willingly accept. Without hope there is no purpose – no reason for family, for friends, for the pure beauty of summer sunsets, for assuming the struggles of carving out our own place in a complex, too-hostile society. There must be hope.
This year, more than ever before it seems, we have wrapped ourselves in our tribes. We have drawn lines around who we are, defending ourselves against “the other,’ and made fear our common denominator. Too many of us have demonized those on the other side and sought no community beyond our own kind. We define our tribes by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political thought, what car we drive, where we live, how much we earn and what we spend. And what this does is force us inward. We burrow defensively into our safe havens, rabbits scurrying underground in fear of some ill-defined but keenly sensed predator.
The best lives are not lived inwardly. We do well when we live expansively, embracing and accepting the differences among us rather than fearing imagined dangers by people and ideas we don’t fully understand. We are best when we seek to know who and what we do not know, when we ask and reason and, most of all, listen to “the other”. When we expand our own narrow tribe.
It would be easy to conclude that we’re destined to sacrifice community for the false security of our tribes, especially after what we’ve seen these past several months. It would be easy to conclude that we’re bounded by fear and suspicion, that we build walls rather than bridges, and that there is now other way now.
But on my morning walk today I remembered what puts the lie to these sad conclusions.
Several years ago I was in Rwanda, a country haunted by genocide, ethnic wars and more heartbreak than a soul can bear. As part of my duties I visited Gihembe refugee camp, and at the start of my tour a small girl, probably no more than five or six, appeared in the throng of boys and girls who had come to look at the white guy. She was tiny, and wore a green smock. While the others clamored around, she reached up and grabbed my hand, and held it tight. As we walked through the camp she did not leave my side nor let go of my hand. Once or twice I knelt to talk to her, asking in my pidgeon French her name, and telling her my name was Greg. She did not respond – no words, not even a smile. We carried on that way for the hour or so it took to reach Gihembe’s other side. When we did, I knelt again and told her I had to leave, but that I would always carry her with me. I withdrew my hand, stood up and headed for the truck. When I turned to look back, the crowd of children following us had dispersed. Except for her. She stood at the gate, staring at me, tears running down her cheeks.
I cannot begin to know this young girl’s story, or why she was in the camp, or how much was left of her family. I cannot know her story. But what I do know is that, despite the incredible pain she had suffered in her young life because of ethnic and tribal warfare, she still craved human touch, and the comfort of a hand that would not reject her. It did not matter who I was. It did not matter what tribe produced me. It did not matter.
I carry this girl in my heart, and she will never leave me. Although she cannot know it, she has taught me lessons I could never have learned anywhere else. She teaches me that despair is temporary, that our tribes do not matter, and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, hope abides.