Manunkind

Once again, I turn my mind toward poetry this week. The poem itself is wide-ranging and powerful, covering important topics that I feel ill equipped to grapple with at this juncture. The poet is Victoria Adukwei Bulley and she composed it as part of an initiative at the Victoria & Albert Museum to wrestle with its links to slavery. I encourage you to listen to it in full but I’ll draw your attention to the first line:

Men like you say mankind and mean yourselves, your brothers, and your fathers’ fathers.

When you draw the circle around humanity, in other words, you draw it to include only people like you without thinking. When you consider the human experience, you imagine that the world, in all its beautiful and diverse complexity, is essentially experienced only one way. You do not necessarily set out to exclude but you cannot conceive of ways that are not your ways, people who are not your people, hearts that are not your hearts.

It is not wrong to be self-aware and self-reflective. It is wrong to believe that the way your self is is the only way a self can be. With every concentric, constricting ring whereby you lessen the pool of who counts, those inside lose knowledge and wisdom and empathy while those outside lose respect and dignity and often their lives. Being inside means, all too often, not only that you forget how to look outside but that you forget there’s anything worth seeing out there at all.

I am, time and again, confounded by people who say that they have finally found the limits of who counts, the limits are these, and this is the end of all possible discussion on the subject. To say–with a surety that could melt steel–that others have neglected so-and-so a group while esteeming another group overmuch. To clearly delineate the bounds of the valuable and the valueless, and often to claim that doing so is an act of Truth, Faith, and Love. To assuage the excluded by saying that it’s not so much that they don’t matter, just that they matter differently or less (by which they mean not mattering not at all).

In an odd turn, considering the poem’s colonial/historical/racial context, I’m sitting here thinking about the US Declaration of Independence. About certain truths it claims–erroneously–are self-evident. On the one hand, they were exactly right: all are created equal. On the other, they didn’t actually just say “all,” did they, and they definitely didn’t mean it. They said mankind and meant themselves.

I do not consider myself a utilitarian in the macro sense, but in the micro I think the mindset has, if you’ll forgive me, some utility. There is probably some natural inclination in humanity to seek a ‘tribe’ of those like us. And there are reasons such a drive was useful in the past and is still, in some ways, useful today. But I think we live in an era when the tribal drive has, at best, a declining utility. Not just because it’s exclusive and often very dangerous (when you arm tribalists with nuclear weapons, for example). I feel this way because I think it has limited utility insofar as it limits, at the very least on a personal level, growth. There is some pleasure in living surrounded by people like yourself but there is greater personal utility in learning difference. You will be a better person, I am convinced, when you leave your little circles behind.

It is good to say mankind and consider the wealth of life that the term can include. Perhaps it is better not to say mankind and instead acknowledge the diversity of that life. Perhaps it is best not to say anything, in turn, and simply listen to the stories that life is trying to tell you. As Rilke said, live your life in ever-widening circles.

This Beautiful, Broken Speck

I’m going to start off with cats because today’s topic is pretty heavy.

Evie2017-5-7

BubbaCamaro2017-5-9

“War! I did not hate the enemy, I hated the spirit that made war possible.”

I first encountered this sentiment in an exhibit at the British Library on the Great War, printed on the wall next to an original manuscript for Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Mabel Dearmer, a British woman who would later die serving as a nurse in Serbia, did not like war. She continued in that same letter, “…I envied the proud mother who sends her sons, proud of them, proud of the war that calls them out, proud of the God of battles. But that God is not my God, and my heart was heavy.”

I’ve had war sort of on the mind of late. I do not think there will actually be a war, but this is the closest I’ve come to its possibility in my immediate surroundings. South Korea elected a new president on Tuesday and he seems to want a much more conciliatory approach to relations with the North (Sunshine Policy 2.0?). And, of course, I am thinking about World War I because we are still in the midst of its 100th anniversary. And also, people hating other people.

Some of you will be familiar with the photograph below, often dubbed “The Pale Blue Dot.” It even has it’s own Wikipedia page. It is a picture of Earth as seen from approximately 3.7 billion miles away in the vastness of space. It takes up just over one tenth of one pixel, caught in the middle-ish of the rightmost band of light.

pia00452_md

The Pale Blue Dot, credit to NASA

Carl Sagan, who asked that the picture be taken, said this about the image:

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

I’ve thought about joining the armed forces. Not particularly hard, but I’ve considered it. I’ve contemplated what kind of war I would fight in, how I would handle it, what I would think about it. I honestly am not certain how I would react if our country went to war again, especially if the draft was instituted.

I’m very much a flawed individual but I think that I’ve determined for myself that there is no jus ad bellum. No just cause to go to war. There may be situations in which I think a war should occur, but there is no justice in it.

I’d like to think of myself as a pretty empathetic person but sometimes people totally confound me. It’s like when you’re watching a movie or show practically yelling at the character not to do the stupid thing because we all know how it turns out and then they do the stupid thing anyway. How could someone conceivably act and think like this? How could they be so stupid, so blind, so cruel and hateful? I mean, I’ve taken enough classes on conflict to know how, at least sort of. My undergrad capstone class was literally Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing. Still.

I want to preserve and cherish. I want kindness and compassion.

We live on a cosmic speck. It is full of incredible beauty, miracles, wonders. But it is terribly, if not irreparably, damaged. I truly do not believe that this peninsula will go to war, at least not soon. But come on, you have to actively goad conflict for things to feel like this, the status quo was (I almost don’t want to say it) better. Who do you think you are and what are you doing? This hate thing, this war, what are they good for?

Absolutely nothing.