Saturday, July 21, 2012

How my favorite author helps me relate to the world today.

I came across this quote yesterday, by my favorite author, E.M. Forster, and it just seemed to resonate with me after the horrific event that unfolded much earlier on the same day, in Aurora, Colorado. Here is that quote: “I believe in aristocracy, though -- if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.” (From "Two Cheers for Democracy," 1962, EM Forster)

How, one may ask, does this quote have any relevance to the sad happening in a movie theater in Colorado, where a mass murder has taken place? I was with my mother today, and I was (unfairly, I may add), berating her for her harsh judgement towards things she herself does not like or care for. She can be over emphatic about things, and easily expresses a hatred for them, but perhaps I was too harsh with her in calling her on this; my main concern, though, is for my children, who can be quite uncomfortable with her crudity. Then I told her she was becoming more like her father every day. My grandfather was always one to say how bad things were getting, and how it never used to be "like it is these days." A very negative place to come from, and very negative for children. It is a lame and dying sentiment that should be put to rest for good. My mother mentioned the shooting, and I pointed out that people have been killing each other for thousands of years. I'm quite sure an individual from a rival tribe has snuck up on sleeping enemies and attacked in cold blood while they snoozed in their huts. An evilly insane member of a wagon train, or religious sect, or ship full of explorers has slit throats of unsuspecting cohorts. A mentally ill child or parent has murdered members of their family. There was Jack the Ripper. There was Attila the Hun.There was Vlad the Impaler. There was Hitler. There is Mark David Chapman. It happens, in human culture, that we kill one another; those we love, those we hate, those we abhor and those we revere. We don't necessarily understand why, and we struggle with that every day.  But if we deny the very human-ness of it, we will die.

So my point here, if you can follow my convoluted tale, is we must connect with one another, as we are commanded us to do in Forster's great work, Howard's End: "Only connect!" It is the cry of the Humanist cause, really, to somehow understand our fellow man. The hipsters in the Seattle coffee house may not seem to have much in common with the native in Papua, but they both cry when they feel pain, and smile in joy. This what makes us all, so essentially the same. If we have a brain and a soul, we can understand one another if we choose too. Which is so very much the point of Forster's work. The Italians, as different and exotic as they may seem from the English, and the same, the same species. Human beings. We must be sensitive, considerate and plucky. The xenophobe, the racist and the bigot ( which aren't we all?) must set aside their extreme prejudices and see other human beings as their brothers and sisters, once and for all. It is what makes a large human family, and what can help us to put aside the petty differences of politics and religion, of nationality and religion, and embrace our fellow humans. Because aside from the connection of being natural born killers, humans also have the thread of a great capacity for love and tenderness. If we continue to see nothing but the evil, the insane and the fearful in our fellow beings, we miss out on those wonderful unrecognized, unnoticed and undeserved moments of Great Love. Good things do happen. The heroism that resounds in the unselfish actions of those who helped others, even while under severe duress themselves, will overcome the malignancy of this tragedy. But only if we lift that cause up and recognize its greatest importance in our human culture.

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