May I have your word first that you won’t turn the radio off the instant I blurt out what it is I believe in? You may be tempted, but I’m asking you not to. All right?
I believe in sadness.
I believe in sadness as the harmonic without which other responses to the world are thin and flat and false. And I have my mother to thank for this abiding belief of mine in the importance, and the imperative, of sadness.
She was a concentration camp survivor.
Don’ t misunderstand. My mother seldom put her own sadness into words at all. She did talk about her experiences, yes, but her accounts were largely factual, as if commentary of any kind would only detract from what she had to say: Here we were put on the train in which we traveled for so many days and nights, here we stood outdoors in a square for 48 consecutive hours, here we were given gruel to eat and here nothing at all, here in the snow I wore thin shoes stuffed with newspaper, here I awoke one day beside the body of a cousin and the next day beside the body of the woman who had taken that cousin’s place.
The point is that I have always known, in detail, about the worst we can do to our own kind. I’m not alone, of course: The descendants of slaves share this knowledge with me, as do those who have lived through nightmares of tribal bloodshed, and all the history-haunted others who have seen with their own eyes what can happen when those around them decide they are not human and so may be used as animals, or, declining even to use them as animals, simply decide no longer to tolerate their existence at all.
But this knowledge has not been a curse. In fact, it has been a gift. Never being able entirely to forget how quickly and how completely any life may fly apart at any moment also leaves me astonished and grateful that on most days, in most places, most of our lives do NOT fly apart. The possibility of evil is everywhere, at all hours, and yet even so brilliant, fearless joy stubbornly holds its own in every corner and quarter and sometimes does even more just than hold its own.
That is why I believe in sadness, without which I might forget the truth, and so be deprived also of gratitude and of joy.
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