Facing death and seeing the heroic nature of life

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017)

I don’t believe in war. In name and in family heritage, I’m Mennonite. In spirit, I’m pacifist.

But children, it seems to me, should have a working knowledge of war. Because in war there’s not only darkness and fear, there’s light and courage. There’s humanity. There’s humility.

It’s the sort where you walk into the day and realize that there’s no tomorrow. There’s no yesterday. There’s only today, the great now. Nothing else matters.

I was talking about it with the children the other morning. It was breakfast. We were reading the paper about the ongoing civil war in Yemen, a suffering place that will always be near to my family’s heart because of our early years there during Gulf War II.

Conversations about war have always come naturally in my family. When I was 12 my own father sat me down and explained that when he was 12, in the Germany that Hitler stole, he, just a boy, escaped from a Russian POW camp. When my father’s cousin starved to death, from giving up her will to live more than anything, he, just that boy, built her burial casket.

My father’s grandmother, who’d give blankets and warmth to locals in nearby farm barns, showed her particular style of Mennonite pacifism when enemy soldiers wanted to have their way in her home. When her husband fell to his knees to ask for mercy, my father’s grandmother, as the story goes, grabbed one of the Russian’s guns, clubbed him with it, and told her husband to get up, that you never bow to anyone but the Almighty, certainly not to some drunken enemy soldier.

This is the paradox, that when facing death you often see clearer the heroic nature of life. Maybe this is even the sole reason why we’ve been placed in  such in a dangerous world, to get better acquainted with this sort of courage.

I once said as much when I was asked to speak about these matters at a peace breakfast at the Hamilton Convention Centre. My family was graciously recognized for whatever contributions we may have made to peace in our community, even while living afar.

I found this ironic too. Of course, the kind recognition was very meaningful. But many days I can’t keep the children in a state of peace, let alone find peace inside my own thin bones. Further, most peacebuilding in this community, like in any community, is hidden. We just sometimes need someone to stand up and remind us.

Ours is a grumpy and bloody old world. In 3,400 years of recorded history, the planet has known peace for all of 268 years. In the 20th century, war took more than 120 million human lives, by some estimates, more than wars in all previous centuries combined. The dark angels are surely laughing themselves silly in a wild and drunken craze.

One would be forgiven, then, for assuming that war is humanity’s hopeless, natural state “Man against man. Man against nature. Man against himself.” This is how the storytellers frame it.

In recent days, with hellish hurricanes and the anniversary of 9/11, it’s hard to think much different. Even as it’s hard, in war, for the most arrogant of human beings to believe that they’ll live forever.

I actually don’t worry excessively about any of this. How does it help anyone?  On this side of the grave, in a way, life is not meant to be safe. And it seems to me that, yes, it’s the devils who are happiest when you believe otherwise.

But these things come to mind because today also happens to be the anniversary of what some consider Armageddon’s birth. On Sept. 23, 1942, the Manhattan Project, to launch the world’s first atomic bomb, officially began. More shadows.

And now the courage.  All that courage, the one virtue through which others cross. In recent days we’ve witnessed this too in the news we’ve read and watched. Courage, flooding amidst the floods that would destroy.

This isn’t to deny the gravitas of the mess we’re often in. But it helps those of us who are fallen, or wounded, or just plain afraid, to rise above it.

Maybe even, in our best moments, to fly above it.

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