Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Øieblikket Part 2

In the last couple of days, the following lines have come to mind, and I realized it would have been most appropriate to include them in my last essay on time. From William Blake's “Auguries of Innocence”:*
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I had always assumed, since hearing these lines in high school, that they were the end of a sentence, perhaps the end of the poem. But I was surprised when I looked them up and found that they are the opening lines of the poem. And I was even more surprised to find what follows. It is not some mystical jaunt; most of the rest consists of couplets essentially instructing the reader in various ways to take care of the world and its creatures. A few selections:

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the state
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood

He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belovd by Men
He who the Ox to wrath has movd
Shall never be by Woman lovd

A truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent

The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of death
The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air
Does to Rags the Heavens tear

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall neer get out
He who respects the Infants faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death

Nought can deform the Human Race
Like to the Armours iron brace
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plough
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow

Blake finds a completely practical meaning to the apparently mystic notion that a grain of sand can hold the universe: respect. All the worth of the world is poured into each and every living being you encounter. He does not say it here, but I suspect he’s thinking of our being made in God’s image. This is not mere confusion of scale, but a reflection of what we know, when we take the time to consider such things, about ourselves (for we know our own worth) and morality (for we know how dreadfully important it is to treat others properly). In the middle of the poem, immediately following the lines about truth and lies, Blake turns from the particular to the general:
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Through the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the Soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

I was even more struck by the content of the poem because it highlights the importance of using the moment well, as I was discussing in my previous essay. This topic has arisen also in several conversations I’ve had with friends over the last week, some occasioned directly by my essay, others by world events. For hardly anywhere is the moment more important than in the world of politics.

In each of my (lamentably infrequent) forays into studying history, I have become more convinced that people do not change. Individuals change, and cultures change, but the middling ground of “human nature” does not. (I call human nature “middling” because it affects both individual and cultural behavior, and seems to provide a link between those two.) Politics will always be necessary to manage the gap between cultural forces and individual lives, and it must do so by taking into account the immediate situation.

I will relate a story here, which is relevant to the current political state, and which also is an archetypical example of how great an impact a moment can have. Two conversations in the last week have led me to tell my experience of September 11. That was a day when the whole world was changed in an instant, and you knew it. I think my experience was different enough from that of most people I know that it bears retelling here.

In the summer of 2001, I was halfway through my Peace Corps service. Classes were not due to start until late September, so I was planning a trip to the capital, Conakry, to work on my secondary project: providing lab materials to the school. Guinea is about five hours ahead of New York time. In the early afternoon of the 11th, after lunch, I was getting ready to take a nap (as one generally must do while living in Africa). Just before lying down, I had BBC playing on my shortwave radio, and I heard unclear reports about a plane having hit the World Trade Center. No one knew what was happening at the time, and at that point it was still assumed that a poor pilot of a small private plane had had a terrible accident. Unfortunate, I thought, and turned off the radio.

Four hours later, the proviseur (analogous to the principal) of the school I taught at was visiting my hut to write letters for me to take to Conakry. As he was preparing the letters, I turned the radio back on.


By that point, the towers had collapsed. Reporters on the scene were managing to describe something of what was going on—but what was going on was panic and horror. The sounds in the background were awful. For ten minutes I stood over my radio, the proviseur writing at my desk, and I tried to listen and learn what had occurred, while translating what I heard into French for the proviseur’s benefit. He was silently stunned and incredulous. How could either of us have expected a routine meeting to become the occasion of such terrible news? Finally, I insisted on leaving to find my sitemate, another Volunteer who was teaching English at the school.

She was cleaning her hut. She had not had the news on; she was listening to music. Still in shock, I told her she must turn the radio on. And we sat and listened.

The world had changed.

My most desperate desire at that moment was for more connection to Americans in general, and to the immediate events in particular. We would not leave town to meet other Volunteers for another day or two. Our search for more information took us to the compound of the diamond mining company Rio Tinto. In Kérouané, our village, Rio Tinto has an office and a compound, where we had occasionally been invited for dinners as fellow expatriates. (Their staff come from various nations of the Commonwealth—the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, etc.) They had a satellite TV. We rushed across town on our bikes to find out if they would let us watch. Once we found someone we knew, we had difficulty explaning what was happening. How do you tell someone in the middle of an ordinary workday that Washington and New York City have been attacked? A bit perplexed, he gave us permission to go in and watch. A little while later, he came and joined us to find out what we were talking about. We spent the evening watching news and replays.

I know many people have said those images looked unreal, like scenes from a movie. That’s not how I saw them. To me, they conveyed a truth that I couldn’t believe. My mind refused to accept that it was seeing what it saw. Nothing changes that much that quickly. No one has the power to alter or end that many lives that completely. Yet they did.

Not all of the Volunteers in Guinea learned of the attacks that day. I know of at least one who didn’t hear until a week later. She had been traveling in Côte d’Ivoire, and while she was crossing back into Guinea, one of the border guards asked, “Did you know your country is under attack?”

For about a month, it seemed, we were fully galvanized and unified. We would brook no discord, and we needed to mourn, to act, to pray, all at once. Nor were we alone; the world was with us. An editorial in Le Monde declared “Nous sommes tous Américains.” Of course our friends in our villages supported and grieved with us, but even when we went to the regional capital of Kankan, people would stop us and say, “Are you Americans? We are all touched by what happened to you, and we are saddened and sorry.” Incidentally, we lived in a heavily Muslim region.

This is how it seemed from overseas. I’m sure the situation was more complicated here.

The world may have changed that day, but people did not. The last five years have borne away the unity which was forged so quickly, and divisiveness and acrimony seem to rule. It is worse in some nations other than our own. I cannot bear to retell the stories I have read recently about the battles between Israel and Lebanon, or of Sunnis and Shi’ites and vendettas. A friend asked me last weekend, among several other “on-the-spot” questions, what I thought of the situation in Iraq. After substantial thinking, and relating the story above, I answered (not very well at the time) that I don’t believe any military can stop the hatred there. There is no reason, no rationality behind that hatred. They and we urgently need diplomacy of the finest kind, and that is not what the situation is getting. I admire those who serve in our military, and I mean them no disrespect, but I think Blake was right that it is no honor to us that “Armours iron brace” is necessary.

So I come back to politics. But I have said enough about these matters. I am the world’s least qualified person to discuss diplomacy in the Middle East. I know the importance of politics, however, for it is what gives civility to the horrendous state of relations that people seem naturally to attain.

At the other end of the spectrum from a moment that fills the world with sorrow, and no less important than it, is a moment that fills an individual with joy. A friend of mine was baptized this weekend. I have never seen a live childbirth, but I have witnessed this second birth many times. It is awesome every time. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful sights I have beheld. To watch God’s family in Christ growing. To gain a new spiritual sister or brother.

I was not able to witness this friend’s baptism, but I know she received it with excitement, a bit of trepidation, and happiness. Anyone who remembers their baptism (I am among them) can tell you that it is a sharp moment, full of anticipation and longing and thankfulness. I do not mean to say that baptism is the advent of salvation. That is an entirely different theological discussion. But in that moment, you know you are sealed by God. You have confessed your willingness to join a worldwide, timewide family, and that family accepts you marvelously. As the hymn says, “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!”

In this case, the baptism is especially wonderful, because a year ago my friend did not believe in God at all, or only hardly. She and I have talked about the difficulties of believing, and about how religion cuts to the marrow of the self, reaching mind, heart, and spirit. Of all the things I do with friends, worship is the most important, and I am thrilled to be able to join another in praising God.

I am often amazed that what a person experiences most intimately and intensely is precisely what is most universal among humans—such as love and faith, or unfortunately also hate and doubt. It seems a great joke of God that our individuality can only lead us to our commonality. Because He has chosen to order things that way, Blake is not mistaken that eternity lies in an hour.

* I have followed The Norton Anthology’s practice of printing the poem as Blake printed it, without editorially adding punctuation or changing spelling and capitalization.


Anonymous said...

I love Blake.


Anonymous said...

I love Blake.