The editor of a local newspaper asks me to help identify the twenty most powerful people in town, the men and women who not only have a vision, but “the guts, the stamina, and the influence to fulfill that vision.”
I’d like to help, I tell her, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about current events. I used to spend more than an hour every day reading a newspaper — until I realized that my appetite for news was a hunger for something else, that more information wasn’t making me wiser about the world, or myself. Now I don’t know which politicians are riding high and which are headed to jail, which activists are this month’s heroes and which have left the barricades to become consultants. I don’t know whether working within the system makes them more powerful — or simply more worried about whether their jobs will be funded next year.
Then, too, I remember Tolstoy’s warning that “in order to obtain and hold power, a man must love it. Thus, the effort to get it is not likely to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities of pride, craft, and cruelty.” An old-fashioned sentiment: we hardly ever speak anymore of a politician’s cruelty. Yet hasn’t the twentieth century been the bloodiest in history? Hasn’t most of the bloodshed been inspired by leaders with guts and stamina?
I’m wary of men and women whose speeches are impassioned but who rarely listen; who know how to save the world but not their own neglected marriages. Rather than face the dark side of their consciousness, they exhort us to march behind them in the lengthening shadows, to live (and die) for their truth (or re-election).
Better one person who mends his or her ways, Wendell Berry said, than a hundred who talk about it. After all, which of us is so powerful that we don’t have to breathe the polluted air? Which of us can fly coast to coast without leaving behind a stream of crap? No matter how many faxes we send, how many dreams we record in our dream journals, forty thousand people die each day of hunger. The most rudimentary reasoning suggests that a powerful person would know how to feed a hungry brother or sister — and, once there was bread on the table, how to feed the heart.
Yet our leaders look us straight in the eye, talk about tomorrow. I wish they’d lower their gaze, remember that every face is a holy text, that the name of God could suddenly blaze before them. A sage once said of our greatest president, “Lincoln knew Christ was president. He was only acting president.”
I get a letter from a friend who’s struggling to keep his marriage from falling apart. J. writes: “One night I am a little boy terrified that she might want another. The next night I have to fantasize about her being with someone else in order to be aroused. The third night I have to fantasize about my being with someone else. The fourth night we look deeply into each other’s eyes and only the two of us are there. The fifth night I wish I were alone.”
I admire the courage it took to write those words. Don’t we become whole by attending first to our brokenness? In his powerlessness, perhaps my friend is taking hold of power.
Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman, said that to an ordinary person everything in life is seen as a blessing or a curse, whereas to a warrior everything is a challenge. Not just the grand gestures. Everything. Going one more hour without reaching for a cigarette. Returning to a therapist’s office week after week. Turning over the rejection letter and starting a new poem on the other side.
M. is almost completely paralyzed; he spends most of his day in an iron lung and writes with a mouth-stick between his teeth. He tells me he’s discovered some lines in a poem by W. S. Merwin that impressed him tremendously:
I asked how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all and he said you can’t you can’t you can never be sure you die without knowing whether anything you wrote was any good if you have to be sure don’t write
M. was so moved by these lines that he had them taped to his iron lung. He says, “I think this advice has somewhat freed me from my internal censors.”
I’d like to feel free to stare out the window without worrying whether my words will shape themselves to what I see; to accept myself now, not when all the mail is answered and I’m ten pounds lighter; to lift weights at the Y without comparing my body to the one next to me. (At least, after making love with my wife, I no longer compare myself with other men; if only I could stop comparing myself to the man I was ten years ago.)
Once, I walked away from a job as a reporter in the most exciting city in the world. Was I walking away from power — or toward it? I moved to the woods. I gave away most of what I owned. I spent a lot of time alone, trying to become the world’s biggest expert on myself.
But I don’t want to bury my nose in the front page of my inner life, ignoring the world around me. I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of my feelings, as if I could understand this mysterious world through the lens of my childhood pain.
Gandhi wrote in his autobiography that he wasn’t a well-adjusted child. He was so shy he ran home from school because he couldn’t bear to talk to anyone. He was “a coward,” haunted by the fear of “thieves, ghosts, and serpents.” Darkness terrified him; he couldn’t bear to sleep without a light in the room.
Yet Gandhi stood up to the British Empire and won independence for India.
For all his political successes, Gandhi’s greatest yearnings were spiritual. “What I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years,” he wrote, “is to see God face to face.”
Most of us have given up not only on God but on democracy. What faith it takes to believe in the individual, broken and holy. We know that democracy is risky, that democracy is impossible: the distant shore, the heavy oar.
Ironically, it’s when everything breaks down — often in the aftermath of a huge natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane — that we hear of neighbors acknowledging each other for the first time, discovering community where previously there was only anonymity and isolation.
I wonder: Does it take a storm sweeping through us, knocking down everything in its path, before we greet ourselves as long-lost friends?
In the rubble, perhaps I’d walk up to that stranger. It wouldn’t matter how he was dressed or whom he’d voted for in the last election. It wouldn’t matter that people don’t just walk up to other people.