Seamus Heaney: Our Inner-Game for this Insurrection

Bad things happen.

How do we think about the unbearable without giving way to cynicism? How do we move towards a flourishing community?

Consider the words of Seamus Heaney:

“We are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.”

Heaney  answers this question himself. He starts with a poem by W. B. Yeats:

“The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

/States Heaney/ “I have heard this poem repeated often, in whole and in part, by people in Ireland over the past twenty-five years, and no wonder, for it is as tender minded towards life itself as St. Kevin was and as tough-minded about what happens in and to life as Homer. It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.”

In short, Heaney states we must remember the murderous – the very unsympathetic realities. There is also the marvelous – the ability of humans to connect and restore. Both are completely true. And both are messy.

Interrupting a cycle of identity politics

In theory, finding our identities in our common humanity – not our tribe, family, etc.-  help people see each other as humans worthy of respect and dignity.

In theory, telling the truth about the past identity-based violations allows a culture to mourn, show remorse, decide who they want to be going forward, and take those steps (hopefully those are steps that lead to flourishing).

It practice, it’s messy and highly emotional. Identity politics are.

The tidal wave of anger & shouting

Some people’s identities are so firmly rooted in unhealthy places – a victim (who may have become the aggressor) or aggressor (who now claims victimhood). It should be no surprise that the crazy-making actions of the past have literally driven some people crazy – that is, beyond the ability to have civil conversation about the past, to become unstuck, let alone remember correctly and fairly.

I have met and been wounded by these people too. I know how easy it is to get drawn in and become part of the shouting! Thankfully it’s often just shouting or shunning. Too many areas of the world quickly escalate to violence.

To the extent I can (and one can’t always control it), I will not let crazy people veto my health or the health of communities I care about. There are some people who can work together. Truth and light at the right time can interrupt cycles of violence. Maybe not today. Maybe in a decade. But it can and does happen around the world when people seek health.

Let’s be specific about the U.S.

Lest I hear, “Now you’re meddlin’,” I’d like to give my own examples:

1. My father was a Vietnam veteran Air Force pilot who bore the deep burden of unhealed wounds from that war. Families go to war, not just soldiers. How does one think about healing when the evidence around you shows “wounds don’t heal and that’s ‘normal.’?”

2. We moved to Selma, Alabama to live near an Air Force base just as it was shuttered, adding economic distress to my own family and to a town grappling with the legacy of race. How does one think about flourishing when people can’t get over the shock of the past?

3. My college debate coach murdered my dear friend and former debate partner. How does one best think of divided loyalties, forgiveness, and reconciliation with the killer one knows?

And yet…and yet…instead of death I was given signs of hope for a future of flourishing. I saw that some had an imagination for the marvelous as well as the murderous. And I sought to foster that imagination. It’s counter-cultural!

It is my hope that more local communities will be willing to have the courage address the sad parts of our past. I am not talking about things like “The U.S. should apologize.” It is easy to have the “U.S.” apologize. It’s very hard to ask a family or community member to address past harms or to reach out to those who have been harmed (when the result is often a tidal wave of anger coming right back at you which no rational person gets up in the morning and wants to face.)

These are toxic waters. Some people are so crazy angry that they wish everyone to die alongside them.  Nuts! as they said at Bastogne!

For those who choose health, remember intimacy and friendship are still real – even if your friendship has to be with a bird you just spotted out of your window.  There is relief one feels when building a bridge to a healthier future. This reconciliation poetry website offers language and ideas and points to other people with similar ideas and even better language.

I’ll close with Seamus Heaney too. In his poem Exposure, he says let’s not miss our own calling outside of our identity politics. To do so would be to miss “the comet’s pulsing rose.”