Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Blue Skies, Black Clouds

When I run in Central Park on crystal clear day, my mind inevitably wanders to September 11, one of most crystal of all days. I was also making my way around the reservoir when it happened. I don't know what it is about us, this embedded memory of where we were and what we were doing on historic days, but it's there. What was most striking about that particular day was the extraordinary contrast between spectacular almost pristine weather and the absolute devastation and darkness that occurred in its midst. To me it was, and continues to be, the central metaphor of our times.

We live in a world of sharp contrasts and sharp divisions. For the most part, we stay on our side of the park, ideally in our own sunshine, and pretend that what we see and experience is the way things are. Vast amounts of ink have been expended on analyzing the disparity between immense wealth and abject poverty and the growing schism between the haves and have nots. You don't have to be a sociologist to understand the explosive implications.

In the past week, the Bush Administration began to radically revamp its occupation team in Iraq. One of the problems mentioned by analysts was the paucity of personnel who spoke Arabic. Deja vous! Those of us who have questioned this war, and many who supported it, have been concerned from the start about the lack of a real "after" plan. Here again is that two world split, separate and unequal, but that's the least of it. We simply can't and don't relate to what most Americans see as alien territory. Democracy is natural and easy to us, why isn't that the case for others and why aren't they standing in queue to get a cookie cutter piece of what we cherish so much?

We've also seen another terrible terrorist attack. More innocent lives. Again the contrasts, our run in the green park and their pulling out bodies from the rubble. There are those who argue that terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. What one person sees as a mindless act, another sees as an act of liberation. Let's not put too fine a point on it. Killing done by organized states or itinerant revolutionaries is fatal nonetheless. There is a German expression that says it all, "hang me or behead be, I'm still dead."

The real challenge here is for those of us sitting beneath the blue skies to stop pointing fingers and start moving ourselves across the street to address the black clouds. I'm not suggesting killers not be routed out and punished, but let's stop assuming that eliminating the symptom will irradiate the disease. More to the point, let's stop assuming there is no disease. We need to learn the language and we need, as a counseling friend says, "to change the conversation." That will require some give-ups.

As a youngster during World War II, I remember vividly the letter "A" on the rear windshield of my father's Chevrolet. It dictated how much gas he could purchase in times of rationing. Being a clergyman, he had preferred status. Most people displayed a "C." In time of war, it wasn't business as usual. Things have changed. Was your basic life standard or mine altered one iota during the Iraqi or Afghanistan conflicts? Of course not. Perhaps there was a bit more security at the airports and tunnels, but it was hardly a blip. That's important because we no longer "ask what you can do for your country" (which even in 1960 didn't mean what it did in 1940). Consequently, it's not surprising that we are both uninvolved and protective of the status quo. The world in our heads has an order, a preconceived set of rights and wrongs and we don't even question its superficial, not to mention underlying, assumptions.

Things are not going to get better until that changes. And change won't come until we can put ourselves in the shoes of others, some of whom we have grown to distrust or even hate with an unthinking passion. I keep on remembering candidate George Bush's debate comment about humility in dealing with other nations. He obviously didn't mean it, but I wish he had. Humility and abandonment of the know-it-all mentality is the only thing that has a chance of pushing away those black clouds. We must learn the language and start assuming the other guy is also right. Which means, we can be, and are, wrong some, perhaps much, of the time. We have to stop bemoaning the black clouds and start solving the atmospheric problems that keep them in place. That will take a great deal of work and may require putting letters on our rear windshields. The alternative is that those black clouds will spread and nothing will protect our run in the park.

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