It is scarcely possible to open the newspaper – as I still do – without coming face to face with a “crisis.” It may be in Syria, North Korea, Greece, Sudan, London, New Hampshire or Penn Station. The causes are as various as the sites: terrorism, civil war, missiles, religion, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, immigration, opiates, climate change, rotting infrastructure and revenge. Together, they threaten to merge in a generalized sense of danger, unchecked and uncontrollable.
Crisis: what has that word come to mean? Can a single act betoken a crisis? Must a situation persist, resisting change or amelioration, to constitute a crisis? Or is it a moment when forces hang in the balance pending a resolution? Does a crisis impel an immediate response? Or can a crisis endure as a chronic condition? Is a crisis something different from a calamity? Is this more than a semantic problem?
My first memory of the use of the word “crisis” goes back 55 years to 1962: the Cuban missile crisis. I was 15 and frightened. My mother urged me to trust the president – it was his business to keep us safe. But my fear bested her reasoning and I shouted back, “My life is my business.” My bedside radio stayed on all night. Long before the Internet was around to hype the event, or conspirators trolled the airwaves, radio reporters conveyed a sense through their tense, deadpan broadcasts and uninterrupted coverage that the world was in extremis – and that world included me.
What characterized the Cuban missile crisis, as I experienced it, was a sense that the world hung precariously, urgently, in balance in that moment. It wasn’t simply a matter of good v. evil, communism v. capitalism, democracy v. autocracy. It wasn’t a trend or a pattern. It wasn’t even complex. It was life or death. Further, it was a moment when it seemed that the outcome was in the hands of just two men – John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. It was terrifying to conjure up the consequences of a false move by either one. It was wholly unclear whether the naval quarantine ordered by Kennedy would trigger a Soviet nuclear response.
The public crisis lasted six days and ended, as we now remember, with the Soviet Union dismantling the missiles it had installed in Cuba. The quarantine subsequently was lifted. There was a resolution. To be sure, there were and are lingering consequences of the affair, but the crisis, as such, was over.
Not so easy now. The events and conditions deemed “crises” have a myriad of causes. They defy unilateral, or bilateral, solutions. They persist. One crisis – an earthquake – segues into another – cholera. Drought becomes starvation. Perhaps this is abetted by the communications glut, or by one critical need attempting to outbid the other for resources and attention. Or perhaps it is the seemingly impenetrable complexity of an interconnected world that baffles and overwhelms us.
All is not dark and hopeless — far from it. Remarkably good and promising things are happening all around us, sparkling with optimism. To resist and protest is uplifting. To learn about biological, technological, physiological, artistic and archaeological break-throughs is exhilarating. But it is nevertheless concerning that the recurrent branding of world events as crises may lead us to become increasingly insensible to situations and events that are critical, including those that could be intelligently addressed and perhaps solved. Crises seem not to invite solutions. Rather, they have become conditions that evoke hand-wringing, check-writing and marching on the way to acceptance of the unacceptable, as we go back to business.
Privately, we disclaim responsibility for solutions by acknowledging we are not the ones who can cure cancer, end greenhouse emissions or give peace a chance. We are not rocket-scientists. We deprecate our potential to foster change that might, just marginally, relieve despairing conditions of one kind or another, in one place or another. “We must be the change we wish to see,” Gandhi wrote. Does the massing of crises debilitate our capacity to see how?
The starfish story comes to mind. The child tosses a starfish back in the ocean, recognizing the truth that there are too many beached starfish for her alone to save them all. But, as she wisely notes, she makes a difference to each one she rescues. It is unusual for one person to effect that difference, though Malala Yousafzai, in her context, comes to mind. More commonly, like Alan Kurdi’s drowning, the individual produces an outcry, but no change.
Crises are, for the most part, created by men and women, often (though not always) with evil intent. And it is possible for men and women of good will to chip away at them, even if comprehensive solutions elude us. Though we may not absolve ourselves fully of responsibility by taking marginal actions to problem-solve – by speaking out, stepping up, persisting in outrage — our humanity demands that, as we lurch from disaster to catastrophe, we not allow ourselves to become hardened to crisis as a way of life.
The Langfollow archives reveal that it’s been well over a year since I last wrote on this site. Initially, the explanation – or excuse – was a relapse into depression. (Depression is not a source of creative energy.) When I emerged in full appreciation of life, I continued to avoid the site, as if it might trap me in my prior grieving and grievous state of mind. That fear is past. Now 70 years old, with a feeling of hopefulness and competence, I am returning.
My father was the subject of one of my earliest essays. He was then 96 and living a curious, sometimes surreal, life of an Alzheimer’s patient, with the complication of a brain injury from a fall. His life ended on April 8, 2017, at the age of 98, in a deepening sleep in the home where he had lived for 48 years. A lengthy obituary and death notice in the New York Times and Washington Post summarized an awesome (correctly used in this context) life as a creative entrepreneur and philanthropist. Aspects of this life were in turn recounted at his funeral service at Temple Emanu-El by some of those most deeply connected to him.
My eulogy did not review the chronology of his life. Instead, I examined his thinking about the values that guided his trajectory. I feel intensely that I must revisit that eulogy on this site before going on, as my father’s death is surely a defining moment in the arc of my own life.
“My father’s achievements — his inspirational character, his creativity, his boundless curiosity, his infectious enthusiasm and his innovative daring — have been widely recognized and honored. He was no shrinking violet, and he enjoyed the glow of recognition. But what people ask me over and over, in various ways, is how to understand what motivated his philanthropy. What led him to commit over 95% of his considerable resources, and an equal amount of his time, to creating opportunity for others?
Thinking about this takes me back to the simple prayer — we called it “grace” — that my father composed, and taught my brothers and me to recite at Friday night dinner when we were children:
“Thank you, God, for having such a nice mommy and daddy and brothers. Thank you for having such a nice house to live in and for having such good food to eat.
Help us to deserve and appreciate all these blessings.”
Deserve and appreciate. Those were the operative words, central to my father’s moral philosophy and key to understanding his instinct for philanthropy.
They originated with my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, Daniel Lang. I remember as a child climbing over the stone wall that separated my grandfather’s farm from an abandoned orchard. Once on the other side, there was no lollygagging. “If you don’t pick apples, you don’t eat apples,” Grandfather admonished us. Clearly, we were expected to earn our rewards. We would deserve the apples only if we worked for them.
This was an essential lesson of my father’s upbringing — tinged with Grandfather’s socialism.
To this my father added the second element of our family prayer: appreciation of the blessings of family, home, food.
I came to understand from this that we were never to take anything for granted, never to assume any entitlement. We were to be aware that our family, our home, our food, were blessings for which we were to be thankful.
It would be easy to take those two elements — deservedness and appreciation — and turn inwards, that is, to celebrate the exclusivity of our own successes — to eat our own apples, if you will.
But that would undermine the core intent of our prayer of thanksgiving. As we dutifully turned off the lights, finished what was on our plates and picked up pennies from the street, my father gave us to understand that blessings are not evenly distributed in our world — even in our own communities. That we must not be careless or thoughtless in the enjoyment of our blessings. That part of being deserving and appreciative requires us to think how we can make it possible for others to enjoy these blessings too.
Thus, as he saw it, philanthropy is not an act of “giving back.” It is simply an essential element of living a moral, fulfilling and responsible life, as fundamental as breathing. But it became even more than that to him. It morphed from a disciplined belief to an emotional high, as my father himself learned that philanthropy at its best is not a one-way street. If you look at photos of my father celebrating milestones with “his dreamers,” you will understand that giving was a source of tremendous joy to him. He was exhilarated by the projects of Lang Opportunity Scholars at Swarthmore, and by the graduations of Lang Youth Scholars at the American Museum of Natural History and New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was elated by the promise of research at New York Hospital Queens. Excited by the new generation of students and faculty at Lang College at the New School, and by the prospect of integrating civic and social responsibility in college curricula.
All of this genuinely thrilled my father. He would tell you, as he told me, that through giving, he received the greatest gifts, and that anything he did not give, he lost by not giving it.
Giving became the essence of a purposeful life for my father. He immersed himself in it creatively, and passionately. Two years ago, he told me of his sadness about losing his sense of purpose. As Alzheimer’s Disease depleted his marvelous capacity to spin out ideas for new projects, he felt keenly the loss of what had energized him for decades.
But there were moments when that excitement returned, particularly following student concerts at home. One day last year, after two students from Concerts in Motion had performed for him, he asked them, “How do you know when you’ve performed well?” At first, the students answered somewhat tentatively — the audience applauds. But my father shook his head: No, he said, and he put his hand to his chest, how does it “feel inside” when you’ve performed well? The students thought hard — how to put into words what it felt like — and they did, they described the physical and emotional elation, and my father nodded vigorously, satisfied that he had shared in their joy of making music and in the recognition of a job well done.
Two weeks before he died, my father said to me clearly and simply: “The future lies wholly in the past.” He refused to elaborate. In that moment, I recognized what he was saying: the gig was up. But what a past — and what a future he created for all of us.
Gandhi said: My life is my message. And so it was for my father too.
Thank you, God: Help us to deserve and appreciate the blessing that was his life.”
Now, it is time for me to return.
There is a well-known advice book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting http://www.whattoexpect.com. It validates feelings and physical changes by reassuring the reader that these are natural consequences of being pregnant, consequences that frequently and normally occur. It doesn’t promise that these experiences will occur; it serves more as a forewarning. Expectations, even great ones, are, after all, the expression of hopes (as well as fears) and, at their most reliable, may rise to probabilities. But expectations can be as surely exceeded as disappointed. They may also morph into an unanticipated and very different reality.
Beyond pregnancy itself, parents-to-be are given to expectations. Whether these are high or low, they have been known to create an impossible burden on some children to achieve and perform throughout their lives. And from the outset, the child wordlessly expects her parents to provide security, nourishment and love. It turns out that this is more than some parents can handle. In short, expectations that go beyond the womb often have a low level of reliability. Nevertheless, even in the face of contrary experience, expectations are woefully persistent. We often fail to recognize their wishful or hypothetical character. In fact, we internalize expectations in a way that may lead to unwarranted surprise when they do not materialize.
Expectations are hazardous when not recognized for the weak reeds that they are. Stereotypes are rank with expectations. Case in point: almost 50 years ago, my law school class included an Army officer, recently returned from Viet Nam – Alan for the record. He fit all of my expectations of a military man – buzz haircut, ramrod straight posture, sharp creases in his pants and shirts, and a political viewpoint as far to the right as I was to the left. We were, in short, a goodly distance apart in our world views. On a day verging on summer, I encountered Alan on a commuter train. He was alone, reading. He looked up to greet me and turned over the book as he did so. It was a collection of 20th century poetry. I was startled, actually shocked, that the man I’d pegged as a right-wing militarist was reading poetry for sheer pleasure. The two seemed incongruous. It was an “ah ha” moment that has stayed with me all these years. People are surprising and complicated; they are not shaped by another person’s expectations.
I thought of this again last month watching a performance of Pagliacci at the Met. The heart-wrenching aria sung by the clown first alerts us to be surprised by his behavior, before the stage audience is stunned by the unexpected, and the comedy-turned-tragedy is over. We are not who we seem and even our assigned roles can’t be trusted.
Expectations nevertheless play a useful part in making choices. What we expect of a candidate will likely determine whether we vote for her. Even one who plays havoc with our expectations does, as we’ve seen, fulfill them. Likewise, in choosing a mate, we rely on the indicia of how we expect she will behave, in relation to our values. Again, this is a hope, only partially authenticated by premarital experience. However, inconsistent behavior confounds our expectations, and muddles our decisions. We need to be able to expect some things of each other – even strangers – or we would hesitate to go out the door.
Expectations provide a base line to conduct our lives. They are both useful and hazardous. When they are fulfilled, we are pleased and vindicated. But it is the exceeded expectation that is a great joy. One night last week, a young man approached me as I turned into the path to my home. He asked to use my bathroom – he was, as he explained, in extremis, and still several blocks from his home. I hesitated, mentally assessing the danger inherent in the situation, as I live alone with an amiable and skittish toy poodle. I did not know what to expect of this young man. But he was neatly dressed and coifed, well-spoken and sympathetic. So I formed an expectation of good behavior and invited him into my house to use the bathroom (though I did take the precaution of waiting outside). When he emerged, he thanked me profusely and went on his way. The next day, a pot of pink daisies appeared on my front steps with a note – “May your kindness and generosity always be returned.” I was ebullient for hours! The young man had vastly exceeded my expectations and uplifted my spirits.
My daughter works for an agency that has turned “expectations” into a verb, as in “the report is going to be late so someone should expectations the boss.” This is a significant mutation of the noun for it is more than a prediction: it suggests that the truth or certainty of the situation is already known. It is an expressive adaptation of the noun, and presumably preempts disappointment. I trust, however, though I won’t venture to predict, that this will not become a common usage. We must retain the capacity to manage our own expectations and, on occasion, to experience joy when they are exceeded.
The Chicago Tribune reported this week that police officer Robert Rialmo, who intentionally shot and killed a college student and accidentally killed a bystander, filed a counterclaim against the victim’s estate. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-robert-rialmo-quintonio-legrier-20160206-story.html Officer Rialmo claims that the deceased student’s conduct prompted the shooting and has caused him “extreme emotional trauma.” This, explained his lawyer, was a part of his client’s “normal grieving process.” Excuse me, Officer, but is this the new alternative to remorse?
Over thirty years ago, Garrison Keillor wrote about remorse in The New Yorker, assuming the persona of a remorse counselor who believed that when people do bad things, “[t]hey should feel sorry for what they did and stop doing it.” www.newyorker.com/magazine/1983/07/11/the-current-crisis-in-remorse “Remorselessness is a fundamental flaw, a crack in the social contract,” he complained, bemoaning the “parade” of “perfectly normal people” who had “less moral sense than God gave geese.” In the end, he boasted of the “remorse program” he created for assembly-line workers to improve job performance by promoting contrition for misconduct – like “excessive lunch breaks.” I can’t say what provoked Keillor to satirize remorselessness, though he may have been reacting to the so-called “Twinkie defense” popularized by the trial of Dan White for the 1978 murder of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. www.snopes.com/legal/twinkie.asp While the term may have been a misnomer in a literal sense, it is fairly associated with creative alternatives to personal responsibility, and the decline of remorse. Officer Rialmo has taken this to new, aggressive territory.
As any criminal defense lawyer will acknowledge, the value of remorse can’t be overstated in the moment of sentencing. It must be perceived as genuine, of course, as distinct from regret that the heavy hand of the law is about to fall on your neck. A remorseless individual is perceived as a derelict soul, and an ongoing threat to society, for he lacks the kind of feeling that would inhibit future criminal behavior. But given a person with less moral sense than a goose, it may be that the best defense is a good offense. Or such is Officer Rialmo’s apparent theory. The theory enables him to take action, in fact, compels action; whether or not it is wise or admirable is another question.
Anyone who has felt extreme, persistent distress, sadness, guilt or shame over his or her own past conduct will understand viscerally the Latin roots of the word “remorse” – to bite again. Remorse is the emotional product of a regret surfacing to take another painful bite out of the present, to impinge on any pleasures of the moment, to remind us of past failings. It is sadness infused with guilt, a sense that we ought to have behaved differently under the circumstances. It presumes we made a knowing decision, or took an intentional action, and it was the wrong one. It encompasses the understanding that the past can’t be changed, that we can’t undo the wrong. It is the resilient residue of a misguided, hurtful choice. It resides in the memory of our heart and willfully intrudes on the present with only slight and unexpected provocation. It persists even in the face of the certitude that the wrong will never be repeated.
Remorse is thus a powerful, relentless feeling, but it is not empowering. It can, indeed, be paralyzing. It is a “feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval” than mere guilt, wrote Julian Barnes in The Sense of an Ending. http://www.julianbarnes.com/books/sense.html Its “chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.” Remorse is a draining emotion. It accomplishes nothing in itself. It changes nothing in itself. But it may work its misery successfully by convincing the individual who feels it that he never wants to endure it again.
And that is the hope: that remorse is painful enough so the person who committed the act which triggered remorse will want to avoid that consequence in the future. It does not, in other words, make for a better, more ethical person, but one who will be more cautious and self-protective. It serves as a deterrent of anti-social behavior, without muddling in morality or justifications. It is more reliable in this regard than mere guilt. Thus society has a great stake in remorse. And in response, remorse invites mercy rather than punishment, compassion rather than condemnation. Which is perhaps a circuitous route to making us all more humane.
I was riding the X-2 bus last month on an unseasonably warm day. I was lucky to get a seat up front so, when an elderly, jovial gentleman carrying a baby got on, I saw several people rise to let him sit down. He brushed them off smilingly, saying he wasn’t riding, just helping a lady out by carrying the baby on board. We all saw then, following him, a young woman struggling to manage a folded stroller, two large shopping bags, a purse and a jumbo bottle of Sprite. When the situation was clarified, and the stroller stashed on the front landing, a passenger gave her his seat on the banquette, and the man handed over the baby and exited.
A word about the X-2 bus. It travels one of the most popular routes in Washington DC, from “downtown” in Northwest, across H Street into Northeast. There is rarely more than a seat or two available when I board, though if none are vacant, I have unfailingly been offered a seat by another passenger. The riders are not diverse. Primarily Northeast residents, they are, for the most part, African American and lower income. As the number of white residents of Northeast grows, I am no longer the sole white person on the X-2 when I ride it, but the numbers are few. I have never ridden the X-2 when there was not at least one belligerent or mentally ill person on board. Last fall, a rider was shot on the X-2. I’ll just say that the reputation of the X-2, except as a profit center for Metro, is not attractive to anyone, black or white. But it does travel an essential route, which is why I was riding it that day.
The baby was very small, the size of a three-month old but seemingly more mature, a pretty little girl with a lacy headband, a matching pink outfit, and tiny soft-bottomed shoes. She never cried despite losing her pacifier repeatedly, and maintained a quizzical look throughout the ride and thereafter – not unhappy but not smiling. Her mother – or so I presumed her to be – settled into her seat with the baby on her lap and immediately dozed off. Because of her obesity, the baby was not nested securely and began sliding out of her mother’s arms. Her pacifier dropped to the floor. Many of the passengers became alarmed. Her neighbor, an elderly woman, poked her gently and woke her, then relieved her of the baby. Awake, the mother dug through one of her bags, found some hand lotion and applied it. Then she extracted a fleece one-sie, many sizes too large for the baby, held it up to be admired, and stuffed it back in the shopping bag. She retrieved the pacifier from the floor of the bus, sucked on it a bit, then put it back in the baby’s mouth. She reclaimed her daughter, and the same drama repeated itself. A gentleman reproved her loudly, “Ma’am, that baby’s gonna fall!” She awoke again and repositioned her child.
Like my fellow passengers who witnessed this, I had become extremely anxious. There was a lot of shifting in seats, disapproving coughs. The baby was clearly not safe. My stop on H Street was approaching and I was torn between relief and concern. It felt like I was abandoning a child in dire circumstances. But as I stood up, so did the mother, and began collecting her belongings. The bus stopped and she tried to retrieve the stroller from its perch as she dangled baby and shopping bags. I reached for the baby – “Let me help you,” I said. “Is this your stop?” She confirmed it was, so I carried the baby off the bus and stood by as others helped her to the curb. Like the other passengers, the driver waited patiently and wordlessly, then drove off.
I settled the baby into the stroller, packing her in the blanket that was there in lieu of a safety strap. The mother thanked me very graciously as she stuffed the bags and Sprite into the stroller basket. Then she began a tale of sadness, showing me the tattoo on her breast that memorialized a daughter who died. She didn’t have money for the medicine her baby needed. She didn’t know what she would do. Nor did I.
We were standing on the sidewalk in front of a CVS. It seemed improbable that her home was nearby, or that she had descended from the bus at a convenient place. I had an impulse to intervene somehow, but what was needed? The mother was possibly under the influence of drugs, but perhaps just too tired to be attentive to her child on the bus. The baby looked well cared-for – clean, alert, well-dressed, not unhappy – though suspiciously tiny. I thought she deserved a better mother, but who was I to say what the child needed? Now that they were off the bus, the mother seemed purposeful and caring. But where were they going –and was it any of my business? Was this perhaps a scam after all? What could I usefully do, without, I confess, getting in deeper than I wanted to be?
In all of this, from the moment she arrived on the bus, I was conscious of being the only white person around, fearful that any intervention on my part would be repelled in front of others. Concerned that I would be perceived as an interfering white woman who should mind her own business. I was surprised and relieved that I was allowed to carry the baby off the bus and secure her in the stroller. Even more surprised and relieved that I was sincerely thanked for it. But it was all too odd – repeatedly handing off the baby to strangers. Who does that? A very needy person, I concluded. A person in need of social services, which perhaps she was receiving. Various questions formed in my mind – Are you getting help? Do you know where to go for help? – but none seemed appropriate at this point. I looked around for a police officer – but what would I report? There was none in sight anyway.
I reached into my purse, took out a 50 dollar bill and said, “Here. This is for the baby.” Conscience money. The mother showered me with blessings and I hurriedly left. I looked back from the next block to see a person pushing the stroller into CVS, with the mother following. What could I say?
My father was a prolific correspondent as a college student in the 1930’s. Remarkably enough, his letters both to and from his parents survived all of these decades and are now in the archives at Swarthmore College. My favorite exchange concerned a night when my dad and his roommate, having finished their homework, decided to run laps around the track. Upon returning to their dorm around midnight, they each downed a pint of cold milk. My grandmother took exception to this frolic and wrote that, if he felt compelled to repeat it, at least he should warm the milk first.
There are other exchanges, including some after college, that reveal more of family history than I wanted to know. That my grandfather, an avowed pacifist, occasionally berated and beat his children was startling information. It stunned me that my grandmother deemed my father dead, as she wrote in response to the news that he had married my mother, a Catholic. (She later reconciled herself to this union, evidently to claim her grandchildren, and my father was resurrected.) These and other revelations clash with images and relationships my grandparents forged with me and my brothers as we grew up.
My grandmother, born in France en route from Russia to America, graduated from Hunter College and became a school teacher. My memories of her date largely to her retirement years, though I dimly recollect being a visitor to her class one day. I don’t know how I knew she loved me – I never remember her hugging or kissing me – but I believe she did. When I visited their apartment on York Avenue in Manhattan as a very little girl, she would have her cleaning lady wash and iron my dress. This offended my mother deeply, I later learned, but to me it was simply odd. She also braided my hair when it grew long, although I preferred a pony tail. I remember her taking me to Saks for an outfit, complete with commentary that it was not like the kind of stores my mother went to. I understood a slight when I heard one, and felt confused and wounded for my mother’s sake. Grandma also made it clear that her taste for opera was of a higher order than my mother’s taste for musicals.
I had put these experiences together with two stories told by my parents when I was adult, and concluded long before I read her letters that she was a both a snob and a tough cookie, controlling her family like a classroom of students. The story told by my father concerned the first suit he bought for himself when he was 20 – his mother was furious that he had done this without her and sneered at his choice. He was 28 and newly married at the time of the second story. He and my mother sent my grandmother a bouquet of flowers for Thanksgiving. It was delivered to York Avenue from Queens at what was surely great expense. My grandmother refused the flowers and had them sent back to my parents’ home. She knew how to make her point.
My grandfather was a machinist, an immigrant from Hungary with a heavy accent and no high school diploma. He disdained his father for studying as a Torah scholar rather than working with his hands, and blamed him for his mother’s death. Grandfather worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and also acquired a couple of brownstones in Manhattan, that enabled him to buy property in what is now a pricey section of Westchester County. At the time, however, his land was down the road from a pig farm that my brothers and I visited as children, climbing on the plank fences to see the piglets in the mud. My 16th birthday party was held at Grandfather’s farm – although my grandmother lived there too, it was always known as Grandfather’s. He took us apple picking at an abandoned orchard that bordered his land, admonishing us that “you don’t eat apples if you don’t pick apples.”
I don’t remember much else about my grandfather until after his wife’s death when he began baking Hungarian delicacies and lived full time on the farm. He lived to see three of his great grandchildren, and said he thought they were “fine” children, though he had no notion of how to play with them. “Pull your sister’s hair,” he instructed my small son one Sunday when we visited.
My grandfather was not a frequent correspondent – though there is one letter to my father as a freshman, listing all the relatives he should write to. (My father responded in exasperation that his letters home could be shared, but he didn’t have time to write to everyone individually.) His son was on his way into a world unknown to him. He remained an ardent trade unionist and devotee of Eric Hoffer, though he wept – with pride, I’ll presume – when his son was honored for his philanthropy. In my mind, he is a man of principle, unafraid. A man who worked hard physically all his life, loved his land, and sent a telegram that saved his eight siblings from the Nazis. A man who rose from his seat during a newsreel to denounce Hitler.
Some of this history is recorded in the archived letters, some of it only in my mind. Great gaps in both leave unexplored substantial parts of the lives of my father and his family, but the letters are the only hard evidence that purports to tell their stories. What kind of human constructs will researchers make of these letters? So much of the life of a man or woman is lived undocumented. Perhaps it is unfair to archive letters, preserving only the parts of a life that are on paper. What is recorded, after all, is what the writer wanted someone to know at the time. While they often reveal a mindset, relying on letters to reflect the character of the whole person invites distortions. Letters do not reveal what was omitted, intentionally or otherwise, or the relative importance of what was disclosed and what wasn’t.
Letters written to parents and spouses pose a particular trap: knowing what the recipient hopes to hear, the letter writer often provides reassurance or validation. It may be true but it may not be the whole truth, and the rest of the story might cast the writer in a very different light. Letters are also time-sensitive. They freeze a thought, though the writer’s thinking continues to evolve. They don’t purport to do more than that, even if they confess an enduring intent. It is nevertheless tempting to the reader to ascribe a defining character to them, a permanence of attitude that can’t be fairly deduced without other and later corroboration.
I am curious to see what a historian makes of this correspondence, if, indeed, it is read. Whether I will recognize as my father and grandparents the people who emerge from that reading remains to be seen some day.
The woods of Capon Springs, West Virginia were bright and green with new growth one June day in 1982 when I took my niece, Lucy, for a hike. Lucy was not yet three and kept up a stream of chatter as we walked. She was most taken with the large tree trunks strewn at haphazard intervals along our path. “Why that tree fall down, Aunt Jane?” she asked about each one that we clambered over. At first I took a guess – it may have been hit by lightening, I suggested. Or perhaps the wind yanked it up by its roots. But soon enough I was forced to admit I didn’t know why.
Lucy seized quickly on this mystery. “Why that tree fall down?” she continued to ask, but each time added, “I just don’t know why.” It was a long walk for a little girl – over a mile – but she kept up her pace and her fascination, undeterred by her awareness that there would be no answer, at least no definitive one, to her repeated query.
In fact, her question was probably not answerless. A forester or arborist could have looked at the supine tree trunks and surmised what happened in each case. There were probably clues to read if one knew the language. But in that moment, with only me present, her question was, for all practical purposes, unanswerable.
Like Lucy, I am from time to time engrossed in pondering unanswerable questions, seeking explanations for the unknown or unknowable. How would my mother’s life have changed if she’d started college at 18 instead of 73? This is a form of benign speculation that invites the fabrication of alternative scenarios, most of which eliminate my existence. They are, nevertheless, entertaining fictions. I have contrived some marvelous careers in medicine for my mother, who in her real life was, among other things, a hospital volunteer. Thus questions like this that seek alternatives to actual events are not, strictly speaking, unanswerable. They simply have no answers that are verifiable.
There are, however, other questions that are haunting and more genuinely unanswerable. http://futuristspeaker.com Ten Unanswerable Questions Some of them have dogged me since I was a small child: what was there before there was something? What will there be after there is nothing? Others are deeply personal: why did my husband drown while we were snorkeling? Sometimes this question arises in a different iteration: would he have died had we gone to a museum instead of the beach? But there is no do-over allowed to get at the truth, and probabilities are not satisfying answers, if they are answers at all.
Fortunately, inventors and explorers are tantalized by seemingly unanswerable questions. We know about bacteria, black holes, flight and seasons because they refused to accept the notion that their questions were unanswerable. But there is a difference in the nature of questions. Phenomena that recur – birds in flight – or that have left clues – downed trees – require inquiry, information and expertise to understand, but they are ultimately decipherable. And perhaps it is because we have become accustomed to solving mysteries of the physical world, or because Google has trained us to believe that there is an answer to everything, we refuse to give up on any questions. Yet, if only to avoid wasting time and thought, it seems important to distinguish between a question waiting to be answered and one that is inherently unanswerable. If the question seeks an answer that depends on permanently irretrievable evidence, such as a cremated body, or if it solicits hypothetical alternatives to actual past events, the question is unanswerable with anything other than speculation. Does that mean it’s unanswerable, or just not susceptible to a definitive answer? Is a wrong answer an answer nonetheless?
What is the hypnotic power of the unanswerable question? Why do we – do I – allow it to intrude repeatedly upon our consciousness? Why don’t we dismiss such a question as pointless or fatuous, instead of allowing it to suck us in? Perhaps it is because there lurks the suspicion that there may be an answer after all, like the unsolved crime that we know has a solution though it has eluded the law. If we think hard enough, study the available information, root out new clues, then surely we will come to the solution. But is it supreme hubris to believe that there are ultimately no unanswerable questions? And does this belief invite contentment or malaise?
Why do we dwell on the inexplicable? Like Lucy, I just don’t know why. But surely there is greater peace of mind in the soul of Victor Hugo’s Monseigneur Bienvenue “who was simply a man who accepted mysterious questions without scrutinizing, disturbing them, or troubling his own mind . . . . leaving on one side those prodigious questions which attract and terrify, the unfathomable perspectives of the abstract, the precipices of metaphysics . . . .”