September 19, 2001. I was up in the mountains last week. Tuesday morning, just after dawn, I crawled out of my tent and ran smack into a ranger whose job that morning was to whisper the news from New York and Washington, DC. When he had finished, we looked at each other for a long, helpless moment. Then we both turned away before either of us could cry. The ranger went off to find more campers. I stood there staring at a tree.
There are moments in your life when the world splits open and forces you to decide what is most important to you and what you are going to do about it. Immediately, my mind ran through all the scenarios taking place back in the city: fear and hysteria crackling over the airwaves; calls for retaliation; a declaration of war, complete with nuclear warheads, biological weapons, and unthinkable devastation.
Then something made me stop and look. Right in front of me, the river ran down the mountain. A marmot froze on a rock. The real world grabbed me by the collar and hauled me back from the brink. Once it had my attention, it demanded to know eactly what I intended to do. What is required of me, right now, by everything that is holy?
Thats the question, and we must find an answer fast. We can no longer fail to respond. Standing by the river, I thought, We love the world too much. We love our own lives, and it has made us soft. Everything we love is fragile and vulnerable: this river, this fish, this rock. We are doomed. They know how to fight. All I know how to do is love this world. Panicked, I scrambled around in my mind for inspiration, for an image of someone wise who had lived through a war and who could tell me who I was supposed to become in these desperate days. I was expecting a freedom fighter, maybesomeone with a gun. But the person who sprang to mind was Chiura Obata, the Japanese-American painter who fell in love with Yosemite and the High Sierra. He appeared to me looking exactly as he does in a photograph from 1942, taken at the Tanforan detention center. In the photograph, Obata is calm and smiling, teaching a bunch of children to paint.
Of all the things to do. Theres a war on, your people have been rounded up like cattle, and there you are playing with a paintbrush. I blinked, hoping to conjure a more martial role model this time, but Obata stubbornly remained. He sat before me, out on a rock in the middle of the river, watching impatiently as I struggled to comprehend.
Then all of a sudden, I got it. Obata wasnt teaching those kids how to paint; he was teaching them how to love. Day after day, right through the barbed-wire fence, Obata taught those children how to see beauty, how to keep their hearts open. He knew that when evil and destruction arrive, we must refuse to stop loving the world. Thenand this is the crucial thingwe must act on behalf of that enormous love.
What America has just learned, very painfully, is that we have not loved enough. We have cringed at gruesome wire-service photos and turned our backs on the suffering of the world. We have allowed our own government to bomb civilians, withhold medical supplies, and sell weapons to brutal thugs in every part of the globe. Through our own ignorance, we have helped create a world where desperate people will gladly sign up to be the messengers of death. And now that death and destruction have reached our own shores, we must decide how we are going to respond: with love, or with fear. The whole world is holding its breath, waiting to see which one we will choose.
So. Which will it be? Love, or fear? If you choose love, then you must act today to tell every person in a position of power that you will not allow our government to inflict more suffering in your name. After that, you must sit down and ask yourself what you have been put on this earth to love, and how you will let this one, great love of your life grow bigger than you ever imagined. You and I need to have this conversation with ourselves and with everyone we know. We need to figure out how to pool our gifts, all our infinite blessings, and let them spill out over the edges of our own, small lives.
There are people who will try to tell you that love is a luxury and that life in all its miraculous beauty is less urgent right now than the need to retaliate against the forces of evil. I am here to tell you that unless we respond with love, we will certainly hand evil its great and final victory. Go out, right now, and plant yourself in the middle of that which you love mostthe thing within you that is most alive. Now listen carefully, because as that love cracks your heart open, it will tell you exactly what this broken world needs from you. This is your holy work, and it cannot wait. Make it big this time. Make it so.
Yael Lachman is the weekly columnist for the feature Between the Lines, appearing in the Santa Cruz, California, weekly Good Times
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