In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
As we approach the beginning of a new administration in the wake of all the turmoil and anxiety the election process created I find myself looking for a positive way forward in the face of what is inevitable.
I have two thoughts that are keeping me going: one is the fact that I come from good stock, as we say. We all do. My parents, like yours, I’m sure, faced challenges that must have seemed equally daunting to them. In the case of my parents, it was WW II in Belfast, followed by literal discrimination in jobs and housing as they tried to raise seven kids in a changing world and a struggling economy, and finally bloody and frightening conflict that seemed like it would destroy us all. They survived and enabled their children to thrive through the application of a few basic principles: be awake and be courageous for what is right, they used to tell us. In a recent blog I described my father’s wakefulness about a system that thrived by trying to keep ordinary working people divided with labels both religious and political, just like we experience today. But it was my mother who exhibited the kind of courage that kept hope alive in all of us.
There is one story of her courage that became a part of our family mythology. One evening, at the height of the so-called ‘Troubles’, the IRA came to the door to take our car for a shooting or a robbery or a bomb. In our neighborhood, which was where the Provisional IRA emerged in those years, refusal was not an option. Except for my mother. She faced down the two armed men who stood on our doorstep: ‘You are not taking this car to hurt innocent people…’ The younger of the gunmen tried to reason with her: ‘You have to give us the car, Missus, otherwise he will shoot you,’ he said, nodding toward his more threatening partner. ‘Well, that is the only way, he will get this car,’ my mother replied. ‘Go ahead, shoot me.’ When the gunmen hesitated and mumbled some threat as they backed off, my mother continued: ‘I am not finished with you, cowards. I will find your commanding officer and make sure you are reprimanded for bullying decent people…’, she called after them. And she did. Through the networks that survivors like the women of Belfast had, she found and faced the local commanding officer of the IRA and the men were duly reprimanded.
She was probably lucky but it was a luck that courage brought. We need to be lucky like that today.
My second thought is about going local. In that same earlier blog I wrote about how my father stressed the importance of ordinary people getting together in order to be strong in the face of powerful forces who thrive when we are divided. The obvious reasons for getting together are usually local, concrete issues rather than ideological matters. I was reading recently about a growing movement that reflects this local emphasis but in a way that also addresses the larger dimensions of our challenges, and that is a global city movement, led by the mayors who run these basic units of community life that predate our modern structures. The “City State,” I remember from my classical studies, predates the Nation State: Rome is older than Italy, most nations have formed in the past half century.
But not only have cities endured, today they are clearly expanding and becoming home to more and more of the world’s population. Cities are therefore the locus of our problems but also of their solutions. For example, cities are home to 85% of the global economy but also to 85% of the related pollution; they are the focus of terrorist attacks but also the place where creative responses to threats evolve; they are the places where poverty is greatest, but also the places where social initiatives are generated.
In response to the failures of the global system of Nation States to adequately address our collective challenges, The Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM), has emerged. Mayors must be pragmatists first as the famous mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, pointed out: there is not a Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.
Of course, local is not confined to cities, or rather the cities movements (there are many others besides this GPM) are symbolic of a deeper impulse. This impulse is probably at the root of very different efforts from both sides of the political divide, from Bernie Sanders reclaiming democracy for the working people to the Trump supporters who want take back our country. But, I believe that anything that can bring us together around concrete common challenges will serve us in the end.
One small example in our town is a ‘Community Meeting for the Needs of Our Immigrant Neighbors’. The purpose is described as nothing more than to provide information about what can be done to both local residents and immigrants. I don’t know what will come out of it – I’ll keep you posted – but I do know that if we can meet like this, we will become more awake and courageous for what is right, as my parents told us.
Many believe we are passing from an old era that focused on the individual and the capacity to control. The new era – if we make it – will be about community and the capacity to work together, across all the divides that are mostly of our own making. But, perhaps it has taken this shock to our collective system of the present political situation to catalyze the kind of action we need to be able move into this new era which will require addressing things that most of us were still inclined to gloss over. Maybe indeed, this is the good news of our present situation that can carry us into the coming years in a positive way.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Christopher Fry (from ‘A Sleep of Prisoners’)