Gratitude, Plenitude, Tragedy, Humility, Joy: A homeless woman suffering from mental illness and a wound that needed to be re-dressed gave her helpers little handfuls of shattered safety glass that she saw as diamonds.

This letter was sent to the author’s friends on December 29, 2011. The Independent came into its possession and asked permission to publish it. We think the piece is worth reading even though New Year’s Day has come and gone.

Another year, hopefully a bit brighter, looking forward, than the last one. But who can tell? Even lost sailors at some point sight land – and hopefully it is inhabited by feathered innocents and not the hunters of heads…

Peter Marin
Paul Wellman (file)

Maybe, slowly, we are learning what we owe one another, and to the dead, and also to those who lie ahead of us, to whom our debts to the dead must be repaid. We are bridges all, are we not, from one state of the world to another? Each of us, and all of us together, create the future others will inhabit. We are living arks of value and destiny. Each gesture and word occurs in an element wherein it echoes out in a variety of patterns: ripples, waves, currents. And sometimes, in ways we do not understand, they break on distant shores.

Hence the need, indeed, the demand, from each of us for truth-telling, for the honesty necessary to fallible men and women who create a world as they go, and also for a deep sympathy for all others, most of whom must be understood – even when their views fill us with fear, or, even worse, a sense of superiority – to be struggling, as are we, to make sense of things and discover an order and a meaning in dark times…

I have always found myself far to the left of liberalism, out on an anarchist edge, believing rightly or wrongly in a radical freedom based on the notion that no act, no gesture, no word, can have an ultimate moral value unless it is performed or uttered or born in a freedom in which each bears the terrible responsibility for choices that may prove to be errors and do more harm than good…

And now that I am older what I value most is not any particular political position but the breadth of experience and depth of reflection and learning that has produced it, as well as the humility that must accompany it. Hence my circle of intimates seems to grow smaller all the time (though death plays a part in that), but my sense of spaciousness and possibility, of human meaning, of our potentially creative powers, increases steadily.

I dwell on that because that is my New Year’s wish for all of you, for all of us: the increased capacity to speak the truth, to understand the complexity of, and error inherent in, all human choice and positions – even, or especially, our own. And I hope, lastly, that all of us remember to recognize the struggle all men and women wage in this present darkness, a darkness that reduces us all to equals, no matter what bright visions we may individually and desperately imagine, like parched travelers in a desert, on the far horizon.

Words for the New Year: Gratitude, for what are given; a sense of plenitude for the gifts and graces of the world, which is, despite its troubles, our only world (as Paul Goodman used to say); and, yes, a sense of tragedy and humility to accompany the good fortune most of us share, for only this (and a self-directed skepticism) can counterbalance the zeal of our ideologies and politics and the glowing dreams we all too often mistake for truths…

What a democracy means among other things is that all, equally, can speak and be heard. But of what use is that if we do not, individually, struggle (life-long!) to discover further and deeper truths, and to risk ourselves out beyond the certainties for which we pine? The truths we must share with others are always “out there,” and only to a limited extent behind us or already understood; hence the need for motion, for seeking, in the endlessness of a “beyond” that withdraws even as we draw closer to it or even enter…

Our equality as humans depends on the notion that the truth has not already been given, and that it requires, always, further seeking to be found, though of course each of us, seeking, finds a part of it we can hopefully share with others before we move on, still looking.

How can truth ever be complete? Or how can any human see it completely? So huge, the mysteries outside and in – that’s Kant (and, in a way, also Socrates). And what a gift! We call that “freedom.” I wish it for all of you, as I do for myself…

May those in need of love or peace or meaning find it; may those with diseases outlive them; may those with troubles resolve them; may those who write books or make art complete their work and find an audience and sufficient praise; and, lastly, may those who work with the poorest of the poor, and who thereby create a kind of (moral) beauty equal to anything we find in art, be granted the necessary hope and strength and good company to continue doing what they do.

That’s it. That and the reminder that we owe to others precisely what we wish for ourselves and those we love.

And beyond that? Joy, always joy. How can we proceed without it? P


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