I had the privilege of meeting a woman this year who had been kicked out of her home in Poland after the war by the Russians and sent to Siberia to work. She told me of the horror she experienced there: the harsh winters, the gnawing hunger, the constant fear of the guards. Of sewing secrets pockets in her dress so that she can steal a few grains of wheat so her family wouldn’t starve. But in the midst of this harsh tale, her face lit up as she remembered the way the sun would set on the steppes in summer, the complete majesty of it. She had never seen anything so beautiful, she said. She would never forget it.
I am reading Viktor Frankl’s part memoir/ part treatise Man’s Search for Meaning right now. He is talking about his time in a concentration camp and how, despite, the extreme misery, and deprivation of everything that makes one human, or maybe because of that deprivation, their appreciation for beauty never faltered:
In camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water color by Dürer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant. One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”
Hearing the old woman talk so warmly about the Steppes and reading this passage from Viktor Frankl (actually the whole book is full of this kind of beauty and triumph of human dignity. If you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend you beginning 2017 by picking up a copy ), fills me with hope.
Hope is a word I approach with caution, but I still think Rebecca Solnit (I already quoted this here) said it best:
“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future…Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans…”
2016 has been undeniably a terrible year on a micro and macro scale. I know it has been one of the roughest years for my family (and that is saying something) but also for many of those around me. But in the midst of all this grief, of all this sorrow, anger and loss, there were many times when our flayed hearts were open enough to receive the gift of those sunsets.
There has been a lot of beauty in the sorrow, a lot of wisdom (which I tend to think of as ethical beauty). There has been moments when the anvil on my chest has been lifted because of the certain glow of light reflected on a red brick building, or the way its dappled journey through autumn foliage bathed the path in gold. Days where the simple joy of being healthy and outdoors has made me want to burst into impromptu cartwheels.
This year I saw my oldest graduate from high school (well, at least in Quebec). I was given a moving send-off from my work. I had the bittersweet honour, and privilege of speaking at the memorial of a man who was a father to me. I have reconnected with long lost friends and shed some old stories that have been dragging me down for quite a while. I went on a road trip with one of my best friends where we visited a whiskey library (really, people, how much better does it get than that? Whiskey + library = heaven), toured a vineyard, tried to open a bottle of wine with our shoe and a rock, and walked on the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyday since July I have been able to go look at the ocean. I have seen the people around me suffer unimaginable losses and still find meaning and beauty in it.
I am constantly awed by the power, the resilience, the love in the world.
I want to keep on being amazed and awed and I can only do that with an open heart in the face of the unknown. In fact I want this so much I got a tattoo to remind me:
Now, this is easy to do when things are going our way, when the sea is calm and the boat is not rocking. It is harder to keep an open heart when we are in the midst of a storm—the lightning and thunder are right above us and the waves are taller than the Empire State building. In times like these, our first instinct is to curl up in the fetal position, close our eyes tight and pretend that if we don’t see it, it won’t exist.
In many ways, I feel like 2016 saw much of humanity curling up in a fetal position and closing its eyes in fear.
The world is changing and it is changing fast. I think we are experiencing a collective malaise, a massive, all-consuming growing pain. Technology, feminism, globalization has caused some very deep role confusion on a socio-economic level, on a gender level, on the way we structure our families and our work. Basically our whole lives.
Trump’s election, the swing to the right in so many countries, the surge of so much draconian misogyny and racism feels like that last desperate clinging to old ways, a romanticizing of a mode of life that never really existed (this whole post-war, ideal nuclear family values bullcrap) in the face of the Tsunami of change that is flooding the world. Confronted by such a global identity crisis, of course we are afraid.
Unfortunately, this fear makes us ashamed. And because we are ashamed of our fear, because we have not gathered the courage to confront it, we inflict countless harm on each other. This leads, of course, to more shame and fear. And voilà, you’ve got yourselves a nice, tight, vicious cycle.
But I have hope. I choose to see this royally fucked up time in our history as one of those transition moments. The last, violent flick of the tail of a wounded and dying era where we enslaved each other in narrow gender roles, segregated each other based on random genetics, where we refused to understand the beauty of slowing down, of sustainability, of policies that cared for our global community and instead embraced this frenetic, crazy-making need for growth at all costs (technological, economic, social).
I don’t know how long it will last. I might not be around to see the end of it. I believe it won’t be easy, or pretty or even survivable in the next few years. The tail of this dying beast is thick and spiked and its reach is long. It will not go gentle into that good night by any means.
All I know is that knee-jerk reactions driven by fear and shame will ultimately lead to a personal, as well as a collective closing down, a mass giving up, so to speak. We all need to unfurl ourselves. To open our eyes. To face the tsunami within ourselves and without with as much courage and compassion and curiosity we can muster. How do we do that?
I have no idea. The only answer I have is to practice keeping an open heart. Maintain an active, non-judgmental curiosity towards our own feelings and motivations and those of others. And, most importantly, as Viktor Frankl so eloquently articulated when speaking about his concept of logotherapy:
There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
In a way, it feels like humanity is going through its own mid-life or existential crisis. Shedding old skin and growing a new one that fits better is always hard. The question of what we keep from the old ways and what we shed, if we go through the next phase of our evolution trapped and scared or with the inner courage to confront ourselves, will be a matter of life or death.
Happy New Year Everyone. May your heart and eyes remain open, may you have the courage to face those inner and outer demons and most of all, may your ability to cherish those small sunset moments never falter.