However just and anxious I have been,
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
— Wendell Berry, “A Standing Ground”
Last week I ended my column with a promise to speak of how we might work to end the terrible divisions in our nation. I cannot fulfill that promise now. I will be silent.
This will be the last of Relocations. It began on Sept. 16, 2014 at the invitation of Bob Hunter, then editor of the Mail Tribune, and Bert Etling, editor of the Daily Tidings. I am grateful to them for the opportunity, and to you, my readers, who have made the endeavor so gratifying.
During the academic year 1972-73 I relocated from Baton Rouge to the mountains outside Santa Cruz, California. LSU had granted me a sabbatical, which I sorely needed. I had been deeply engaged in the civil rights and anti-war movements since 1966, and in a myriad of other struggles my work for the ACLU had led me to. The fury of the war wasn’t abating. Richard Nixon’s re-election was assured. I retreated into the life of the mind, quietly pursued.
The world went on. The war ended, Nixon self-destructed, and I re-engaged. From 1978 to 1990 I was part of the movement to end the nuclear arms race, which threatened the survival of humankind. That, too, ended (though the threat is dormant, not dead), the world went on, and so did I. And the world will go on through this current catastrophe and what it bodes. And I will go on. But for now I will be silent.
I do not urge disengagement. If the times become as bad as this election bodes, to live for oneself would be unconscionable. But soon we may have to speak for the earth with our actions, not our words, as the tribes are doing now at Standing Rock. In a bad time we cannot rely on words, but on song and ceremony. Which means we must rely more than ever on each other to assuage our fears and bandage our wounds and affirm our values and, on occasion, know joy. Our connections must be deep, grounded in a reality not created or maintained by intellectual assent. More than ever we must live by faith.
Since the Renaissance, Western culture has placed increasing trust in the human will to create a world answerable to our hopes for ourselves. In many regards, the results have been impressive and encouraging. But when Leni Riefenstahl named her paean to Hitler “The Triumph of the Will,” it should have been a permanent caution. Now, collectively, we are turning nature itself into an oven in which much of the human race may perish. And for the next four years our nation will be led by a man who seems to respect no limits to his will.
In Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” (1922), after the young man who will later become the Buddha leaves the forest to re-enter the world, he presents himself to a rich woman for employment. She asks what he can do. He replies, “I can fast, I can wait, and I can pray.” We too must learn to vitalize our passivities as well as our activities. To do that, we must enter the silence.
— Herb Rothschild's column has appeared Saturdays in the Tidings.