Tuesday, September 15, 2009

leechlike creature

The poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

-- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Near the beginning of the story, this “small, yellow and leechlike” creature is implanted in Arthur Dent’s ear, allowing him to communicate with alien creatures of all time and space, and to engage with the novel’s farcical conquests, tantrums, neuroses and mass exterminations. Honorifically named because it erases human penalty for arrogance, the creature’s talent is a cure worse than the disease. Perhaps it’s for the best that, after Babel’s fall, we were sent to our corners, bounded by language. Peace has as much to do with what we don’t know about each other as it does with what we do know. We’ll know that peace has broken out when we’re all sitting under our own fig trees without fear; but if I knew what you really think of me, it could make me afraid, very afraid. No telling then what I might do to you. Or you – see how empathic I am! how symmetrical my moral reasoning! – to me. There’s a long-developed art of peace called diplomacy. Knowing when to shut up. Knowing when not to break down barriers to comprehension. If you can’t say anything nice, then . . .

There’s a motto of my church’s religious education, a “chalice-lighting” that hangs on the wall to be spoken near the beginning of worship. “Let us light a candle of understanding in our hearts, so that we may understand how other people think and feel.” It’s a good lesson for children, who begin (if they are lucky) as idolized masters of all they survey, and two mere decades later must find their way alone across the world’s savage trading floor, seeking direction amidst a multitude of other atoms who shriek their claims of value. If children don’t learn that there are other people, and that those other people think and feel, there’s not much safety to be had in this world. If they don’t learn to hear some of those thoughts and feelings as comparable to their own, there’s not much happiness. But what should we grownups do if we come to understand that what my neighbor thinks and feels is a transcendental desire to kill us, and our children?

We learned a lot on the eleventh of September eight years ago about what some other people think and feel, and I doubt that we are better for the knowledge. We may think that some proper, timely intervention, by force or by more perfect love, might have forestalled this moral disaster; but the disaster was not forestalled and we got the message right between the eyes, that some people would give their lives to end the lives we cherish. The choices before us now are perilous, pricey and ugly.

It makes me nostalgic for an older form of life, when isolation had a logic. Some places that were hell on earth could be ignored, because they had no power to bring their hell to us. Leave them alone, you can’t fix it, they can’t touch us here. But now a fanatic on dialysis, fugitive in mountains at the end of the earth, can make me gasp every time I – or a child of mine – goes down the subway steps. I wish he and I had never met.

I heard a student minister say he had taken a vow of transparency, never to tell any lies. He didn’t learn how I thought and felt about his vow, because I didn‘t tell him. My God, I thought, the parish will eat you alive; and as for your private life, Lord ‘a' mercy, who will live with your barrage of Too Much Information? These things he’ll have to learn on his own.

I’ve lived with the same person for forty-two years, and I don’t know everything she thinks and feels, nor she of me. Emerson said the Eye – Shakespeare’s I -- is the First Circle. Each of us stands in the center of the horizon that our eye marks out, and if you stand within my circle (and I yours), we might eye each other. We are not identical. Our circles would intersect but, drawn from different centers, they are not the same. I do not comprehend all of you, nor you of me (unless one of us were master, one the slave.) There are reaches of you that, because of my love, I shall never see. You shall not be dissolved in me. Keep something to yourself, for the love of God. Love has its expression, but intimacy has its timely reticence. As for agape, its limits give it life.

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