We were fighting in Egypt… Leonard Cohen and hope for the future

In 1985, Leonard Cohen sang his newly-written song, “The Night Comes On,” for an audience in Warsaw, Poland, then still behind the Iron Curtain slowly crumbling amidst the last death throes of soviet socialism. It came on my radio today and the lyrics, highlighted below, caught my ear. Given recent events in Egypt (Death toll in Egypt crackdown hits 525) it felt timely that this song would play. I remember watching the first days of the ‘Arab Spring‘ from India and then various hotel lobbies in Burma in early 2011 and wondering just how far they might go… There were (and are) plenty of dictatorships outside of N. Africa and the Middle East after all.

What has come of it all?

As a good progressive liberal, I am hopeful for people of Egypt and surrounding countries. As a watcher of contemporary Buddhist countries, however, I am deeply worried. As Harooh Moghul wrote for Religion Dispatches on Monday: News Flash: Buddhist-Majority Countries [are] Just as Complicated as Muslim-Majority. Extremists from both religions seem to be engaged in a tit-for-tat campaign of both verbal and physical violence against both one another and the whole of the other religion, fueling Islamophobia in Buddhist countries and Buddhophobia (a word which has been waiting to be coined) amongst Muslims – which reminds me of this:

morgan freeman on homophobia

For some, I suppose, the fear is real enough, but for most – and generally the most vocal on each side – ‘asshole’ seems to be a more fitting term.

But when you’ve been lied to and you’ve seen violence as the character in Cohen’s song has, it’s easy to become an asshole and even to “take to religion” (see the lyrics below) as a way for hopeful escape. This fleeing to a self-assured interior or world-transcendence common to fundamentalists leaves one outside the world, literally with “nothing to touch.” When the world can feel so filled with pain, who wouldn’t be greedy in this way?

But thankfully he’s drawn out by his children; a reminder that we all have a younger generation looking to us for guidance. And this is what must guide us even when our hearts are drawn back, as Cohen’s is, to those we have lost. In the end it is those we have with us that matter. The world is getting smaller. When we make our way to “Bill’s Bar,” it’s not just our friends we will see, but also “the few who forgive what you do.”

I hope for an end to the bloodshed in Egypt and for the beginning of forgiveness. And I hope for the same in Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, India, the US, England, and other places where tensions persist. The world is getting smaller. When violence occurs, it ripples out — and back. There’s no time like the present to speak out, or simply share a message of moderation and stand behind it. Forgiveness ripples out too.

But to get there we need to see each other not as coreligionists vs others or as fellow workers against capitalism but rather as fellow human beings, each with his or her own past, own fears, own hopes, and own beliefs.

It’s your choice.

“The Night Comes On”

I went down to the place
Where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow
I said, Mother I’m frightened
The thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, I’ll be with you
My shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night comes on
It was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, Go back to the World
We were fighting in Egypt 
When they signed this agreement 
That nobody else had to die 
There was this terrible sound 
And my father went down 
With a terrible wound in his side 
He said, Try to go on 
Take my books, take my gun 
Remember, my son, how they lied 
And the night comes on 
It’s very calm 
I’d like to pretend that my father was wrong 
But you don’t want to lie, not to the young 
We were locked in this kitchen
I took to religion
And I wondered how long she would stay
I needed so much
To have nothing to touch
I’ve always been greedy that way
But my son and my daughter
Climbed out of the water
Crying, Papa, you promised to play
And they lead me away
To the great surprise
It’s Papa, don’t peek, Papa, cover your eyes
And they hide, they hide in the WorldNow I look for her always
I’m lost in this calling
I’m tied to the threads of some prayer
Saying, When will she summon me
When will she come to me
What must I do to prepare
When she bends to my longing
Like a willow, like a fountain
She stands in the luminous air
And the night comes on
And it’s very calm
I lie in her arms and says, When I’m gone
I’ll be yours, yours for a songNow the crickets are singing
The vesper bells ringing
The cat’s curled asleep in his chair
I’ll go down to Bill’s Bar
I can make it that far
And I’ll see if my friends are still there
Yes, and here’s to the few
Who forgive what you do
And the fewer who don’t even care
And the night comes on
It’s very calm
I want to cross over, I want to go home
But she says, Go back, go back to the World
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