I reckon it all comes down to where you stand and one blessing of growing old – there are things to look forward to, kids, so hang around! – is what Philip Larkin called ‘the long perspectives’. TS Eliot said that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ but I subscribe more to the Keats view of life as a process of soul-making, which I think means developing the sensitivity and courage to see what’s really there.
A good friend of mine suffered from depression. He once told me that he started feeling better when he stopped focusing on the differences between himself and others and began to understand that everybody was just the same. This discovery is at the heart of one of my favourite poems from another person prone to melancholy:
His Country by Thomas Hardy
I journeyed from my native spot
Across the south sea shine,
And found that people in hall and cot
Laboured and suffered each his lot
Even as I did mine.
Thus noting them in meads and marts
It did not seem to me
That my dear country with its hearts,
Minds, yearnings, worse and better parts
Had ended with the sea.
I further and further went anon,
As such I still surveyed,
And further yet – yea, on and on,
And all the men I looked upon
Had heart-strings fellow-made.
I traced the whole terrestrial round,
Homing the other side;
Then said I, “What is there to bound
My denizenship? It seems I have found
Its scope to be world-wide.”
I asked me: “Whom have I to fight,
And whom have I to dare,
And whom to weaken, crush, and blight?
My country seems to have kept in sight
On my way everywhere.”
The same simple yet profound insight inspires Sting’s song ‘Russians’, which ends with these words:
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too
It strikes me that the way to resolve our differences is to search for common ground and focus on what we share. Ordinary people the world over cherish the common decencies – a belief in fairness, generosity and mutual respect amounting to a faith in the power of love. This is no surprise given that we are all descended from the same genetic stock. Put simply – and setting aside any distractions of race and nation – we all share the same mother. And now worldwide communication gives us a chance to deepen our familial bonds by evolving a common culture based on the best of our shared past.
I don’t mean to make this sound easy. We need imagination to break the straitjacket of stereotype before we can make common cause with strangers who have grown up in different cultures. Dreams and the world of the imagination offer us a key to unlock our prison of alienation, or otherness, as the following poem suggests:
Through Nightmare by Robert Graves
Never be disenchanted of
That place you sometimes dream yourself into,
Lying at large remove beyond all dream,
Or those you find there, though but seldom
In their company seated –
The untameable, the live, the gentle.
Have you not known them? Whom? They carry
Time looped so river-wise about their house
There’s no way in by history’s road
To name or number them.
In your sleepy eyes I read the journey
Of which disjointedly you tell; which stirs
My loving admiration, that you should travel
Through nightmare to a lost and moated land
Who are timorous by nature.
Understanding other cultures is no easier than grasping the life experience of our ancestors, but I reckon that making the effort to do both creates a strong bridge between people. History, despite what Henry Ford said, is not bunk. Take the long perspectives and shallow differences fade into deeper similarities. Space and time are one, says Einstein, when everything is relative. And science tells us we are all related. We share a sense of wonder for the natural world of which we are an instinctive part, as this poem shows:
from More Poems by AE Housman
I lay me down and slumber
And every morn revive.
Whose is the night-long breathing
That keeps me man alive?
When I was off to dreamland
And left my limbs forgot,
Who stayed at home to mind them,
And breathed when I did not?
– I waste my time in talking,
No heed at all takes he,
My kind and foolish comrade
That breathes all night for me.
I’ve always wondered what the missing third verse contained. Did Housman want out of his blind craving for life? Perhaps he’d stopped seeing himself as a work in progress, though he does seem grateful to his unseen alter-ego for ploughing on regardless. Jung felt we shared ‘a collective unconscious’, which modern science might interpret as our genetic heritage. And to quote the late Paul Kantner, we are – for good or ill – The Crown of Creation.
Let our reign do us honour, I say … which it still may, if we ever learn to sing with one voice – Wordsworth’s ‘still, sad music of humanity’, perhaps. So in the spirit of peace and reconciliation I offer my own humble contribution to the book of common prayer:
Who live within us,
We salute you!
May your goodness bear fruit
And your dreams come true
In the light of this new day.
You gave us the power
To learn from our mistakes,
As we let others learn from theirs.
May we build upon your example,
For your ways are our ways now
To pass on to future generations.
So be it always.