I believe that the human being has at heart more potential than can be reckoned. This includes self-surpassing and life-destroying capacities. Acting generously; relating compassionately; undergoing the worst and responding with the best: through these we reach beyond ourselves and grow gracious. Acting murderously, hating relentlessly, suffering the worst and responding in kind: through these we rob life of its greater possibilities, and reduce ourselves. I believe that in the human heart we glimpse power similar to the sun’s energy: a venue for life’s generation, and for life’s obliteration. The difference between these two is something small but crucial: critical distance.
I experienced such critical distance in 1971 as I emerged from an automobile tunnel in a remote mountainous region of the former Yugoslavia. Along the roadside I glimpsed an odd statue. The surprise of the statue magnified itself as I approached it by foot: a black skeleton, true in scale and proportion, held aloft in its boney hands its own plump human heart. The proffering gesture of the statue haunted all thinking into stark relief. Deathly horror was joined to hopeful aspiration, thereby creating a stirring visual paradox: life subverts death through the human heart.
In that remote cold I could not begin to picture the thousand-fold suffering that took place on the earth beneath my feet. Children and adults faced unrelenting pain – pain beyond any scale we can create for its measure. They were selected as objects of hatred and fear. They were treated with monumental inhumanity. What human beings did to human beings there (and elsewhere) stuns still. Genocide is but one name for this horror. It does not differentiate itself from Rwanda to Kurdistan to Tehran to Baghdad to Darfur to Hiroshima to Palestine to Israel to Wounded Knee.
What is noteworthy is the magnitude of the human heart’s capacity to be dappled, if you will, by both life and death. And the difference may be simple: the role we choose to give to fear & hatred in the living of life will determine whether our hearts aspire or expire. For hatred is powerful and fear runs deep. They can each be a fire in the mind that burns without awareness of their presence. What quells them is a pause in the syntax of societal madness. That pause can be near impossible to find.
I found it 37 years ago. Or better said, it found me. Human evil is no less dense and destructive, I now know, for its unseeing and mechanic murderousness. Even as human generosity and compassion are no less luminous, I believe, for their enacting of the great wonder: the human heart can separate itself from death and offer life a gift. Rising above tides of murderous madness, it offers the gift of itself.
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