How dare we smile, even for a moment, when so many are dying. Or living in terror. Or poverty or hunger or pain. Somewhere in the world. Right now.
How dare we indulge ourselves, with Paris [and now San Bernardino] in the news. With ISIS on the loose.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver captures this sentiment precisely in “This Day, and Probably Tomorrow Also” (Red Bird, 2008):
“I begin another page, another poem . . . What an elite life! / While somewhere someone is kissing a face that is crying. / While somewhere women are walking out, at two in the morning—many miles to find water. / While somewhere a bomb is getting ready to explode.”
A child is about to step on a buried mine, somewhere in the world. A grenade launcher is about to fire its lethal load. How dare we write poetry. Or read poetry.
What, then, ought we to do?
Fixate on what’s wrong? Freeze our faces in fear? Amplify our anger? Hang our heavy heads in seeming solidarity with those who suffer sadness and loss? Disavow all that’s right and good and beautiful? Really?
Poet Jack Gilbert says No.
In his surprising and somewhat disturbing poem, “A Brief for the Defense” (Refusing Heaven, 2005), through gritted teeth, Gilbert says: We must risk delight. Despite everything.
“Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies / are not starving someplace, they are starving / somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.”
Yes, he says, I know. The world is filled with violence and horror. The most appalling destruction of innocent lives. We see it every night on the news. But. But--
“But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.”
Seriously? Yes. Despite everything, we still enjoy whatever there is to enjoy. Why? Because, apparently, we’re built that way.
Now I don’t know if Gilbert means God literally. Or if he’s simply making the point that Something Larger, better, and more compelling, ultimately, than sorrow, slaughter and starvation—Nature, Life itself, the World—always offers us an alternative to marinating our minds in misery.
It, whatever you want to call it, presents us every morning with simple, natural beauty, among other things. If we but open our eyes.
“Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not / be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not / be fashioned so miraculously well . . .”
Okay, but what about those women out searching for water? What about the sick and dying, lying on pallets? What about human trafficking, for God’s sake?
“. . . The poor women / at the fountain are laughing together between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody / in the village is very sick. There is laughter / every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, / and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.”
What is Gilbert getting at here? A universal truth, I suspect, one that we can easily forget in the shadow of so much pain and terror.
Humans bond with one another, encourage and support one another, find small exceptions, moments of levity and, yes, laughter even in the most desperate times and places. We celebrate what’s right, together. And when we do, we are no longer alone. It is our nature as social beings, indeed, the most social creatures on earth, well, besides the ants and bees.
Together, we can rediscover delight. We can retain a sense of humor. No, it may not alter the apparent hopelessness of our situation. But this is how we are made, like the Bengal tiger. This, too, is something of a miracle.
If you don't believe me, listen to Viktor Frankl, about the value of humor—"to see things in a humorous light"—even in a Nazi prison camp:
“Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”
"One could find a sense of humor there as well, of course . . . only for a few seconds or minutes," he writes in Man's Search For Meaning. Frankl tells a story about training a friend in Auschwitz to cultivate a sense of humor. Despite everything. They promised to invent, and to tell each other, at least one amusing story every day, often an "amusing dream" about the future, after the war.
Once, a group of prisoners being moved by train to another camp erupted in a spontaneous dance of joy when they realized they were not going to a camp with a crematorium like Auschwitz. Upon their arrival, he adds:
“We laughed and cracked jokes in spite of, and during, all we had to go through in the next few hours.”
What good, then, would it do to those who suffer, somewhere in the world, for those of us who do not suffer as they do to repress our own delight? Is this not exactly what they hope for, long for, strive for, day and night? To find happiness, to enjoy life?
Would it not be a sort of insult to them, a slap in the face, for you and I to deprive ourselves of what’s right and good and lovely as if on their behalf? Jack Gilbert implies as much:
“If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, / we lessen the importance of their deprivation.”
If you and I can actually have what they have been deprived of—happiness and simple satisfaction—if we resist and deny these fundamental human drives, even when they lie within our grasp, how does this make the world a better place? Does this not make the world just a little bit darker and less hopeful?
Is this compassion? Some would say yes. Gilbert shakes his head, an emphatic no.
“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world. To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
The poet is defending gladness and delight. Insisting on it, in fact. Hence the poem, as the title implies, is a sort of legal brief in defense of enjoyment, in the courtroom of public opinion.
We must not give in to despair and depression, he says. We can live without mere “pleasure,” or empty hedonism. But we require moments of genuine joy or happiness, however tiny and short-lived, simply to stay alive, to survive, and, eventually, to thrive.
That’s why we must have the stubbornness, the guts, the intestinal fortitude, if you will, not just to resist evil, but to accept, to embrace, to open wide our hearts and minds to our own gladness—not because others are not suffering, but because they are.
Yes, the world is a ruthless place, a furnace, at times a crematorium. It would be so easy, too easy in fact, to give up, to make what’s wrong with the world the sole focus of our attention. Like the evening news. As if there were nothing right in which to delight—no love, no light, no laughter anywhere on earth.
To do that, says Gilbert, is to surrender to the terrorists and the murderers, to give them exactly what they want, to “praise the Devil” or pure human evil. If I refuse to smile when there is something legitimate to smile about, just because ISIS attacks Paris (or Beirut, or Syria, or Iraq, or anywhere else), have they not already won?
The poem goes on, in the face of all this madness and mayhem:
“We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
We must admit. We must, if we are to retain our sanity. There will be music. Despite everything. There will be music.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath. And consider. Where, exactly, will we find this music? And how will we hear it?
The poet suddenly switches gears. He offers a small, seemingly insignificant example, from his own experience. When I first read this, I had to stop and stare at it for a long time. I had to close my eyes. I had to listen. Then I got it.
“We stand at the prow again of a small ship / anchored late at night in the tiny port / looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront / is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. / To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat / comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth / all the years of sorrow that are to come.”
To hear that simple sound, in that particular place, is worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Could this be the music?
After publishing an acclaimed book of poetry, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Jack Gilbert disappeared from the American literary scene for some twenty years, living anonymously on a Greek island.
We are standing with him on the deck of his little ship one night, rocking gently in the safety of a cove, the moon behind a cloud, when a small, delightful sound breaks the silence—oars dipping in the wine dark sea. Moving serenely. Nothing but the muffled splash and drip of water. The quiet creaking of a rowboat.
All is right with the world. For this brief moment in time, at least, all is well. A smile spreads across our face, like ripples across the still surface of the Aegean. We are at peace. It is, after all, these little things that make life worth living.
Is this what Gilbert is saying, after all the death and devastation? What's right with the world is found, ultimately, in the little things? The small ephemeral delights?
Perhaps we are standing here, holding someone’s hand. Perhaps we know, at last, what love is. What life is all about. What matters most, despite all that may be happening elsewhere in the world.
This moment, then—like so many other small delights that we could easily overlook, if we were paying attention only to what’s wrong—becomes a memory, one which, throughout the years of sorrow yet to come, we can reclaim, remember, and relive. When we need it most.
In her beloved poem “Wild Geese” (Dream Work, 1986), Mary Oliver says: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” But she doesn’t stop there. “Meanwhile,” she adds, “the world goes on.”
“Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes, / over the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers. / Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, / are heading home again. / Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”
Yes, there will always be despair. In the ruthless furnace of this world. Meanwhile, there will also be delight. Elsewhere, in the very same world. Whether we surrender to the one or to the other will always be our choice.
Delight or despair.
I was delighted, for example, to see thousands of Parisians and visitors flooding the streets the very next day—despite the danger—to place flowers and light candles for those who died, to come together in compassion.
I was moved to see millions worldwide pouring out prayers and support.
I was even more touched, however, to learn how one young man fleeing the terrorist attack had stopped—at the risk of losing his own life—and saved a pregnant woman hanging by her fingertips from a second-story window ledge of the concert hall where people were still being shot.
Two lives were spared. One not yet born.
Yes, I felt despair at the unfolding tragedy. Of course I did. But I also felt glad about this one seemingly small thing that went right. As Gilbert says, we must stubbornly accept our gladness, no matter now tiny it may appear in the greater scheme of things.
Ask the young woman if that act of kindness was small.
“The world,” says Mary Oliver, “offers itself to your imagination.” What do you choose to see?
One more poem, to close. “Little Poem Written at Five O’Clock in the Morning” by David Budbill (Happy Life, 2011):
“All this violence: wars and cruelties— / collective and individual— / carnage of all kinds . . . / Yet and still every day the sun rises, / white clouds roll across the sky, / vegetables get planted and grow, / and late in the afternoon someone / sits quietly with a cup of tea.”
—Jay E. Valusek