Centennial Stories: Lessons from Trauma 100 Years after WWI

Centennial Stories: Lessons from Trauma 100 Years after WWI November 11, 2018

Chris Barbalis, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. Or, no, maybe not today. Let’s start instead with a poem: a poem published amid a myriad of centennial stories.

100 years ago today, a terrible war came to its long-overdue end. Today we of North American and European heritages and colonial associations (along with descendants of participants from Siam, China, Japan, and Hejaz), mark that centennial together, wherever our lives might find us.

Before the end of that terrible war, though, in July 1918, Sara Teasdale published a poem imagining the state of the world after this violence. July 1918! When the vast majority of the Great War’s 37.5 million dead already lay behind all countries involved, and still there was no clear end in sight. Imagine living in the thick of that particular oppression of lost lives and stable nation-states. Imagine being haunted by so much preceding grief, with so little hope, and then reading this in Harper’s Magazine:

There Will Come Soft Rains

(War Time)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

When Ray Bradbury published a story by the same name in Collier‘s in 1950, inspired by the same fatalistic sentiment, another interminable war was underway. Not World War II, with its own 50 million fatal casualties, give or take: the Cold War. The war with such nebulous borders that, in the wake of the U.S.’s unconscionable actions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world awaited no less than a full nuclear holocaust.

The Centennial Torch, and More

There is a reason, amid so much loss and despair, that we write on themes such as this as a species. A reason that we remind ourselves ever so prettily, What’s the worst that could happen? Well, the world could go on without us. Always has, always will.

It is not eulogy, Teasdale’s poem. Nor does Bradbury’s depiction of an automated house going about its functions for an irradiated family constitute a sermon for the dead.

Rather, they are calls to the still-living, irrespective of Teasdale’s and Bradbury’s teleologies. They are reminders that all our monumental fights are our own. Every generation’s battles. Every generation’s losses.

We gather them up. We pay them tribute. We mark our dead and try to make more kindred the living. We treat with greater tenderness and fearlessness the hurting world at hand, that we might build a better one to come.

…Or, we don’t.

And the birds go on singing in our absence.

And the trees go on reaching for the light.

The lesson in Teasdale’s and Bradbury’s work is that we are alone with our troubles. As such, we alone are responsible for how we reckon with them. Do we nurse our wounds as if our injuries were the most important in the cosmos? Or do we allow our pain to deepen our understanding of, and connection with, the pain of the world on whole?

A Turn in the Road

On Wednesday I was robbed at gunpoint during my run up a beautiful local mountain.

It was bound to happen eventually. A Colombian rite of passage, you might say!

In a busy downtown area, the likeliest cause for muggings is drug addiction, but in my barrio of Belén, the perpetrators tend to be Venezuelan refugees struggling to find a way for themselves and their families through a painfully tight economy. (This does not excuse violence–it just explains it.) And so midway up my run, in the faint first glimmers of what promised to be a splendid dawn, two such persons and one gun appeared while I was working out at a plateau. I was robbed of my cellphone; two other runners, arriving after me, were robbed of their cellphones and shoes.

But our reactions, after the incident, differed tremendously. The others spent the rest of the walk up the clay-soiled mountain imagining how things would have gone if only they’d had the gun. Oh, how they would have taken that gun right to the heads of both pirobos and ended their miserable lives! Pena de muerte!

The death penalty! For the loss of shoes, phones, and maybe some time replacing both?

I felt sorry for their anger–the helplessness in it–just as I had felt sorry for the thieves. At first, I didn’t understood why our robbers had held onto me after the initial pat-down (namely, to keep me from warning others), and so, being a feminized person alone for a few minutes with two men and a gun, I had done the logical thing, and struck up conversation. I had asked them where their families were, and how they were faring, and how long they’d been in Medellín, and when they’d seen last their loved ones.

And they had told me all.

Even better, while answering my sympathetic questions, one of them hesitated, then took the time to return my SIM card to me. Heard as a human being, he had responded as such, even in a difficult situation for us all.


So when I was walking up that hill after the robbery, I wasn’t furious. Yes, I had been victimized, but incidentally, as part of a much larger web of injustice. Those men who robbed me? They will eventually be caught–or killed, a brutal end that faces many thieves here–and no longer able to send even ill-gotten money to their suffering families. Meanwhile, I get to go forward with more opportunities than either of them. Heck, I even had the means, within a few hours, to buy a (cheap) replacement phone right away.

But I wasn’t immune to another dangerous sentiment. At the time, I kept thinking how effortlessly I had remembered the humanity of those doing me harm, while the other victims had leapt to violent revenge fantasies. And boy, how tempting it was, in that first surge of giddy euphoria post-release, to play into the false binary: to think that I was somehow more enlightened than my fellow victims. That while they were trapped in their vengeance fantasies, I had entered a higher realm of humanist thought.

Not at all. I simply had more agency, and that agency had made me calm. It was no different than the ability to be high-spirited when facing, say, an unforeseen repair bill with the money to handle it; or with difficult news to share but full confidence that you will not been punished by loved ones for sharing it.

And it’s that sense of agency we need to foster more of, if we humans are to handle the fact of being alone with our species’ greatest problems.

The Middle Ground

A little more, then, about the “agency” of my fellow victims:

When we three reached the top of the mountain, we continued with our morning workout. And why not? What else could go wrong? But the other two also smoked marijuana until they didn’t feel so angry. Anger had simply been a first reaction, and we can’t help our first responses to anything. We can only mitigate our secondary responses… and even that is contingent upon our circumstances. I had no idea how much harder these two paisas would find the replacement costs for their shoes and cellphones. No idea how precarious their own lives of seeming luxury had been.

Nevertheless, in smoking up, their revenge fantasies faded into casual humour, and by the time we parted they were laughing, too. So much, then, for being trapped in their anger! Meanwhile, as I descended my hill, greeting new joggers with warmly reciprocated rounds of “Buenos días!”, I remembered my own store of anger in Canada, when I had felt a complete lack of agency, and loathed myself for it. I used to feel so helpless to change my circumstances (as a single person working three jobs to make ends meet while trying to make a go of it in academia), and felt I was worth more dead than alive. Occasionally, too, I tried to turn that belief into an action plan.

For me, the problem was living in a culture that favoured the performance of class status over gratitude over the little things: life, health, family, community. I was supposed to play into the idea that if I just worked hard, my intelligence and skillset would eventually guarantee me a good life. And I was supposed to have explanations for when that narrative didn’t pan out, because obviously if I didn’t achieve the middle-class dream it was because I had done something wrong.

This was painful, because I knew how arbitrary our notions of safety, security, and success were, but still had to act as if I believed otherwise. To swim in a culture that relentlessly denied its unmeritocratic nature, pretending that everything was fine and easily attainable: mine alone to win or lose! Even while what mattered most to me was invariably lost in the scramble to perform.

And in Humbling Contrast…

Here in Colombia, I daily encounter a dozen Venezuelan and Colombian families begging on the street. Other street persons have physical impediments to full economic participation. Others still are very old and without familial supports. And then there are the many indigenous persons, separated from traditional lands and ways of life, on the sidewalks with their babies and beads…

In short, there is no lie here. Life is hard. We see how hard life can be every day.

But while smiling is certainly not universal, here it is startlingly abundant. Why? I suspect it’s because, without the lie, without the intrinsic shame of not having achieved a higher class in a system that is plainly imbalanced, people permit one another thankfulness in simply being alive–and if really lucky, with consistent health and food and shelter, too. Notions of being a failure are strikingly different in a culture that does not pretend (economic) success is always within our grasp.

For me, this makes Remembrance Day a curious affair to honour in Colombia. Here November 11 means something else: a holiday in honour of Cartagena’s independence… or the beginning of independence, at least. And yet, at the core of both affairs is the idea that sacrifices were made in the past to improve the world today. As such, both holidays rely on some level of humility before the knowledge that life is often difficult for reasons above and beyond individual choice.

But do North Americans enact this level of humility in our daily practice?

Or is it simply for show, one or two days a year?

A Different Sort of Remembrance

207 years ago–a couple centennials and change!–Cartagena began a difficult road to independence from Spain. The victory first forged on November 11 was later scuttled, and battles took place for years to firm up emancipation. Nevertheless, the beginning of that first charge towards greater Latin American independence is now used to mark the triumph on whole: the start of a turning of the tide.

Meanwhile, 100 years ago–our first precious centennial!–the Great War drew to its close, having decimated a generation and transformed Western views on war: no longer some great ennobling exercise (if ever it truly were); now a wretched quagmire of unnecessary deprivation and loss. Canadians also mark our own independence on this occasion, for it was WWI that changed the nation’s reputation. By the close of the war, we had earned our own seat at those brutal talks that would eventually consign Europe to WWII.

But were either of these occasions enough to secure the values that we ostensibly honour on this solemn morn?

Of course not. The fight for personal agency–as cultures, nation-states, and individuals–would cost ever so much more in the 20th century. And continues to take its toll today.

Last week in the U.S., for instance, the Democrats regained control of the House, which will hopefully offer some vital checks and balances in a difficult political climate, but in the same fell swoop, Estadounidenses were again confronted by their neighbours’ inner natures… because too many elections were closer than they had any right to be. Far too many human beings voted for a party that used racist, xenophobic tactics to win. And so it remains to be seen if this country that will today speak so openly about the “freedoms” protected in WWII, “freedoms” protected by their soldiers in active duty around the world, can in fact continue with any credibility to secure and broaden them.

No binaries, no binaries, no binaries…

If you were to ask most people who bought into the GOP’s xenophobic racism when voting, though, I bet they’d tell you about their own perceived lack of agency. How whites are being marginalized. How the white poor are being neglected. How everything they felt they were entitled to hasn’t actually materialized in their lifetimes, and how the blame for this failure lies at the feet of all the other needy people coming into the country. Not with the lie of the system itself, oh no! Not with the staggering rich-poor divide and the complete bankruptcy of trickle-down economics, heaven forfend!

As frustrating as this mentality should be, though, here’s something even more frustrating:

Whether we like it or not, we and those people are all walking up the same hill together, in the wake of our generation’s share of human trauma: Some of us, with the agency to recognize the pain and suffering of other people. Some of us, so caught up in our own pain–our own perceived lack of agency–that we can feel for no one else.

(Nor is this divide contingent simply on finances: a rich woman might be among the most hostile to others, while a poor woman might have the most neighbourly of hearts. Agency is impacted by financial means, but finances alone do not ensure a sense of freedom from tribalist paranoia.)

Meanwhile, the natural world doesn’t care one whit how we choose to confront this fact.

The indifferent universe is not going to wipe away any tears when our curtains close.

As such, we can spend our brief windows of sentience raging at other individuals in this fragile system: others along the path who seem to have brought with them only selfishness, and anger, and a hankering for punitive violence.

…Or we can turn to our allies, whether or not they’re as near to us on the path as we’d prefer.

Because it might seem sometimes like we’re outnumbered by the angry and the fearful, the people consumed by shame and helplessness who want you to feel angry and fearful and entitled to more, too… but we aren’t. We are never fully alone in our love for our fellow human beings, or our sense of responsibility to them.

This is my hill, Cerro de las tres cruces. I suppose, if I want to be dramatic, it could have been the hill I died on last Wednesday. But it wasn’t, and the hill I prefer to die on is the one that W. H. Auden wrote of in “September 1, 1939“–another poem anticipating horrific days ahead, but a poem with its own fraught history.

In the original version, Auden’s penultimate verse reads:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

But he came to loathe that final line, and the poem’s general appeal to sentimentality. Thus, he only permitted a reprint with the following change:

Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another and die.

Because in the end all our higher sentiments are simply stories that we tell ourselves. Our sense of entitlement to class mobility, to wealth and security? An elaborate story, yes–and our sense of injustice, too. Even our horror, at the idea that so many lives could be cut short over such arbitrary things as world war, and poverty, and disease, is all a matter of narrative selection. Do we grieve likewise at every fallen leaf and blade of grass?

No. We choose–from whatever options we might think we have on hand.

The Lesson of Remembrance

November 11 thus reminds us that we are born into specific paradigms, and that our fates are tethered to ever so much more than the sum total of our personal choices. A hundred or so years ago, a quarrel between collapsing empires doomed 37.5 million and devastated millions more. Today the death toll is different, but the fundamental human truth–that we have only as much agency as our circumstances permit us–persists.

And so Auden’s edit is correct: to die is an inevitability. Likewise, as Teasdale and Bradbury noted, the world will go on without us when we do.

But to live with a full understanding of that precious gift–the perception of agency within a given paradigm–is a choice that many of us have the power to extend to others. And not just with money. Not just with economic opportunies.

Hinduism takes namaste to mean “[The divine in me] bow[s] to the divine in you.”

I’d settle, though, for a world in which we take the time to recognize each other’s humanity… on this solemn day, and every day. Even and perhaps especially when others have forgotten their responsibilities to that humanity in turn.

"Nit: "notably in 1970, ’57, and ’82"Presumably you meant '75 not '57, right?"

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