Unearthing Buried Weapons
This is a simple story about a simple man whose name I have forgotten. He left an impression on me a long time ago, but just the other day I realized how his effect upon me has deepened through time.
I was talking to a friend about a topic we both dislike: politics. We stand on pretty much opposite sides of many issues, and yet by the end of our discussions (speaking for myself) there is often discernible movement toward the center of our disagreements, into the more moderate range. We don’t aggravate each other, so we continue this way until we run out of juice.
The topic of war emerged yesterday. I asked him if he’d ever seen the PBS documentary about LBJ. I am not necessarily drawn to stories about presidents, but I found this one interesting because of LBJ’s apparent regression as a person – at least as seen by the public eye—toward the end of the Viet Nam war as one by one, his circle of advisors jumped ship. There he was left, hanging by his principles over an endless wasteland of chaos and meaninglessness. Ah, how I hate that vast place where one can never find one’s footing. When LBJ retired, his hair grew long and the comment was made in the documentary that in an odd way the former President had morphed into the image of the hippies he had formerly denounced as anti-American, as if he had finally given in to some truth he couldn’t quite grasp in the power role he’d once held.
As my friend and I talked, I realized that one man I’d met had found a fierce, truth-based footing on war-torn chaotic ground, and not as a soldier. About 20 years ago I went to hear him speak in Lake Forest, IL. He was a Quaker who never finished his PhD on the topic that drove his being into the most dangerous places on earth. He never had the time to finalize his dissertation. He and a traveling interfaith group went together to war-torn countries, pitched tents as close to middle ground as they could discern, and did nothing but distribute peace literature in multiple languages to soldiers and civilians on all sides. Interfaith organizations funded their travels, and the plethora of wars around the world meant they were working all the time.
His topic of the evening was not about that – it was about all the nuclear weapons buried underground in the U.S., and the danger these weapons represented literally and figuratively. I hardly remember the detail about that, though. Instead, I mulled over, and still think about, what life is like when you decide to keep going to places where innocents and families lay decimated at your feet and young soldiers’ bodies lay still under the hot sun. Our speaker had been to Afghanistan and Rwanda and a host of other countries with the roving, and it seemed to me like incredibly naïve band of pacifists. He told of their pitching their tents, unpacking their few belongings, and running through gunfire to distribute their literature until they ran out. Then they would move on to the next place.
How utterly ridiculous it seemed to me that, as of the time of that talk, anyway, they had survived the past decade running around that way as concerned clergy. He casually mentioned a few experiences, the things he’d seen with these comrades in (holy) arms, as if he were speaking of family squabbles he just wished he could find words to settle once and for all. He wasn’t crying or longing for praise, but simply asking us to consider the effects of war and how, in some kind of faith, we needed to demonstrate that what went on elsewhere cannot happen here, too. “We must unearth our buried weapons,” he said. “They are a curse to us all.”
Struck by his calmness and clear sense of conviction, I asked a question after his talk. How did he continue? How does a person make this a lifestyle, stopping only occasionally to come home and stay in Quaker friends’ households and tell the public of the risks and ravages of war?
He bent down to take two books from a worn rucksack. “These are my true possessions, and they come with me everywhere,” he said. “They are a great comfort.”
He selected a book and opened it. I expected it to be the Bible, but rather it was his second precious book, Thoreau’s Walden. “Chapter Two I love especially,” he said. “The last seven or so paragraphs are a delight to behold and have provided all I need in the middle of nights when bullets fly close by, with us huddled in our little tents. You know, the desert wind could be flattening us, but the words here would stay with me and make me forget it all.”
What were these words? Someone asked him. He selected some of his favorite lines to read to us from his beloved Chapter Two:
Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness… Our life is frittered away …Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!
If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.
Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature….
If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see sun glimmer on both its surfaces… and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business…
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.
So after this he snapped Walden shut and bowed his head. His voice shook and a tear fell as he looked up and said that he would never understand “how it can be given a man to write so beautifully.”
And I remember thinking, how can it be given a man to live so beautifully, so seamlessly alongside that which was clearly his purpose?