For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.
That’s a passage from Christian scripture, but it’s a precept that I’ve read, heard and seen in the texts and teachings of other religions, and it’s commonly enough reflected in social policy and proposals for humane and ethical action in all sorts of places that it deserves more general notice and attention, I think. There seems to be an underlying assumption amongst many people of all kinds and cultures that if one of us has more than another and that other is in need, one ought to take some responsibility for her neighbor’s well-being and share the resources. It’s arguably a foundational principle of civility and hospitality everywhere.
Yet it’s practiced so much less often than is possible. For all of my love of time with friends and family, I also crave quiet and reclusive time, shutting out the world and curling into my own self, and that applies to all parts of my life. And I think that’s probably more common than not. Who does not prefer the company of her own self or her very small circle of kin and kind, especially when the workaday world has seemed particularly demanding and rest and retreat as hard to come by as clear water in the swamp? Who doesn’t covet the privileges she feels she’s chosen and earned for herself?
I was reminded of this particularly when we were in Hungary this summer and I had the privilege of going with a number of the touring choir members and my husband to visit the ancestral home of a hereditary Count and his wife the Countess. The Count himself made only a brief appearance at the end of our visit, his wife having participated with staff and supporters in the greeting of our group, speechmaking about their work with orphans and special needs children in the family-sponsored home on the grounds of the residence, and a small but lovely reception in the main public-room of the place, a large parlor filled with art and artifacts passed down through the lineage. The Count was charming and rather cheery when he did appear, but I sensed that he preferred his privacy as well.
The Countess, on the other hand, had a rather regal bearing and while she was generous in hosting us and very willing to share her home and thoughts with the group, I heard some quiet comments aside that she seemed a touch condescending or even a bit put out by our visit. I had been at the back of the room during her parlor commentary about the family history and the work of the orphanage, not able to see her over the number of people in the room, and her tone was very subdued, so I got the gist of the story, but didn’t see any of the expressions that might have influenced the commenters.
What I did hear was probably a fairly common tale among the nobility in Europe during the previous centuries: a privileged kinship, whether by their own efforts or honors conferred upon them by royalty, this family had done as they were both able and expected to do with their wealth, which was to live quite elegantly and surround themselves with art and beautiful landscaping and magnificent homes. At the same time, they saw themselves very much as caretakers of the larger community, responsible for the well-being not only of the people who staffed their private holdings but those living in proximity as well. This is of course the story of noblesse oblige, a practice of good that may have been at its core a defensive move but served the purpose in any event. Like many noble families, the one we visited had essentially founded a town around themselves over the generations, supporting educational or healthcare or other needed resources and, in this instance, building a magnificent basilica where the town could worship and where, not coincidentally, the touring choir were performing on the evening of our visit in a benefit concert for the children’s home.
Also like so many other noble families, this one had gradually seen its fortunes decline in the years between the World Wars, and on advent of German action in the region in World War II, was ousted from their land and holdings and fled for safer places. Their palatial home first became military headquarters during that war (in which the Hungarians quickly and brutally learned that their alliance with Germany was a general pretext for annexation and Nazi rule), and then was used for Communist offices in the years after. It wasn’t until just a few decades ago that the Count and Countess were able to return to his family property and renew their residence in the place. The good news was that there had been no interest on the occupying military’s part in redesigning the buildings, nor any money for the Communists to do so, so the architecture remained for the most part intact. The bad news was born of the same circumstances, though: the military’s disinterest in redesign and the Communists’ lack of funds extended to any concern for maintenance. Naturally, the park in which the palace stood, the palace and outbuildings all fell into a state that even in their heyday the real owners could probably have scarce afforded to mend, and it all added to the sorrow that the art and fabulous book collections had been heavily looted.
This is a long way of saying so, but on the day we visited there, I stayed after the others had left that once-elegant parlor, pausing to thank the Countess and to ask her a couple of questions about what I understood were the Count’s and her attempts to resurrect some of the property, if only for the appreciation of the locals and the young wards and their caregivers now living in closer quarters with these two owners. Her tone, perhaps because she was no longer addressing a whole roomful of people, or maybe because she felt she didn’t have to represent her husband’s whole heritage anymore, not acting in any official capacity at the moment, softened greatly, and I sensed mostly melancholy. There was sorrow for what had been lost, yes, but after we spoke about that and the enormity of the restoration needs for a moment or two, I simply asked her in the middle of that once-glamorous hall if she had a personal favorite artwork in there.
It was almost as if she became for a moment the young bride who had come there with the Count before the war, a little in awe of his family and the wealth that surrounded them, the power and the weight of the name upon her shoulders seeming rather immense even in the midst of her happiness. I can’t say she became suddenly shy, though it seemed to me that there was the slightest hint of it as she walked across the room and, instead of choosing one of the showy ancestral treasures or superb museum-quality portraits but this moderate-sized, unrestored and slightly bleary, painting of peasant girls dancing around in an Impressionistic meadow, and said simply, “This one.” I asked her what made it so, and she did little more than offer a soft comment that it was pretty and it made her happy.
And I thought that perhaps what had been asked of her, she who had had quite a lot at one time and might even be seen in town nowadays as a bit of a remnant of things past, was her innocence. It must have been a long, sorrowful journey from being a young lady inducted into the nobility by marriage and impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the lavish life and the heavy weight of what was expected of her in her new role, to the life she knows now. However she and her husband might work to regain a place in the community through their labor and largesse, the world has changed, and they with it.
What must it have been like, as she moved through the war and later years in exile, knowing that everything tangible she had known at home might well be gone? On returning long after, though she saw that it wasn’t demolished, her happy ease was clearly broken and irretrievably changed. Finally, settling into her new role as figurehead of a still somewhat nebulous but ambitious attempt to find a way to make all that was left have real meaning again, looking into that painting must have become rather like looking into a mirror at her past self, not as a dancing peasant girl but as a naïf who thought the world was simple and clean and kindly and that all she had to do was make the best of what had been given to her in order to be happy in it.
No matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.
Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.
That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.
The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.
In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.
Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.
On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.
Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.
You know how much I hate politics. I almost titled this post ‘Friends don’t Let Friends Drink & Vote’, since it seems like a whole lot of people prefer to find a specific agenda that appeals to them on a visceral level and shape all of their votes around it willy-nilly, without either differentiating between candidates that do or don’t have any power to guide said agenda wisely or, worse, without first thoroughly checking their own facts regarding that particular point item of passion. Mostly, I hate that what I see and hear of politics is the brainless ranting of people who hang out at the various extremes, and very little of civil discourse and logical, reasoned thinking. Nothing would please me more than to believe that every person with the privilege of voting would not only do so, but do so after serious thought and careful consideration and with a certain amount of faith that the other voters and their points of view matter, too. But to be quite honest, I think we (at least in America where I’ve observed it in person, but I gather this is so in many other places as well) are mighty far from this my ideal.
So I tend to shy away from all things political as much, as long and as often as I can.
Yet I can’t help but wish, and sometimes a little peep of this pained wishful thinking leaks out visibly or audibly. Especially around election times. At least, given my particular bent, I’ll keep trying to publicly disguise my whines and rants in slightly more lighthearted forms when I get my own political itch.