Monday, January 27, 2014

violence, unanimity and poetry

I have never been competitive in my life. I didn’t play sports or run track in school. I’ve rarely played board or card games. When my husband’s family taught me to play euchre, there were times when I subconsciously wanted the opposing team to take the trick, and I almost played the wrong card. I would have gotten a seething (though comical) look from my partner: my father-in-law.

I was deeply conditioned in my Christian home to be selfless and submissive. Furthermore, we were discouraged to participate in sports or any activities that took time away from church, or God. There was no competing with church. How I felt about things was really of no consequence, so I shaped my life into the borders I was given.

Since becoming a mother in 1981, I’ve imagined what I would do if someone or something were about to harm my child. I believed then without a doubt, as I do now, that maternal instinct would kick in, and I would cover their body with my own. While I doubt that I could stab or shoot to protect myself if an intruder entered my home (maybe I could stun them with a frying pan), I believe I could hurt someone to protect a loved one. I might even protect a stranger. I would rather die than live with myself after making someone else die to protect myself. Thankfully, I have never had to test this theory. (Note here that my husband and I have just begun watching the TV series "Breaking Bad" wherein a regular, nerdy guy enters a world of unthinkable choices and repugnance, and I wonder what morality is, and what choices many people in the world are presented with daily.)

In the 1160s, the mother of Genghis Khan tutored him in the ways of tribal alliances. (Temujin was his actual name. After he and his men destroyed other Mongol tribes the title “Genghis Khan”—meaning “universal ruler”—was bestowed on him by leaders of remaining tribes who wanted peace.) At age nine (or age 16, depending on your source), he killed his half-brother. Was this brother another woman’s son? Did his mother advise him to do him in? When you contemplate the decapitations, boilings-alive, slaughters of whole tribes, and all the other mind-blowing violence that infused the lives of these nomadic peoples (estimates at 40 million killed, so many that Genghis Khan is credited with cleaning 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere according to this study), even inside their own yurts (not so different than Henry I assassinating his brother William Rufus to become king of England at around the same time), and our horror at them in 2014, you have to wonder, What changed?

We know more about what happens in the world now, and more quickly, than ever before. Violence seems more pervasive than ever, from Central and South America across to Africa, and on to Pakistan and Afghanistan. We hear more about mass shootings in the U.S. and Europe, one just yesterday at a mall in Maryland. And yet Steven Pinker and others point out that violence is down drastically since previous decades. A couple of reasons are that we’ve grown more intelligent (IQs are up), and democracies are more widespread. Our media spread fear and doubt. Our planet is being decimated, that's sure. But what is really happening to us as humans?

I watched the 2007 Russian film "Mongol" because I wanted to begin to understand Genghis Khan with as little prejudice and judgment as I could. In some ways it is a sympathetic look at what it means to be born into a culture innately violent. Shamans traveled with the marauders. Were they spiritual counselors or purveyors and protectors of superstitions? It is said that Genghis Khan's ultimate goal was to unify tribes in the largest empire the world has ever seen, from China to the Balkans. He wanted harmony, but he won it by violence.

There is a warrior-poet from 17th century Afghanistan named Khoshal Khan Khattak. He wanted Afghan tribes to forsake their fighting and unite. He wrote this poem.

As I Look On

As I look on I am amazed
At this world's denizens,
Just seeing what these dogs will do
To satisfy the flesh.

Such dealings as are brought about,
Men being what they are,
Satan himself could not devise,
Still less consider fair.

They place before them the Koran,
They read aloud from it,
But of their actions not a one
Conforms with the Koran.

In which direction should I go?
Where should I seek for them?
Wise men have now become as rare
As the alchemist's stone.

Good men are like garnets and rubies,
Not often to be found,
While other common, worthless men,
Like common stones, abound.

It may be that in other lands
Good men are to be found
But they are few and far between,
I know, among Afghans.

However much he counsels him
And gives him sound advice,
Not even his own father's word
Does he consider good.

And yet Afghans, in all their deeds,
Are better than the Moguls;
but unanimity they lack,
and there's is the pity of it.

I hear talk of Sultan Baholol,
Also of Sher Shar Sur:
They were Afghans who won renown
As emperors in Hind.

For six or seven generations
They ruled in such a way
That all the people were amazed
At their accomplishments.

Either they were another kind
Than these Afghans today,
Or else it is by God's command
That things have reached this pass.

Once Afghans acquire the grace
Of unanimity
Aged Khushal will thereupon
Become a youth again.

— Khoshal Khan Khattak (1613-1690)

(I regret not having information 
on the translator.)


  1. Looking forward to seeing where this goes, Ruth. With respect to competitiveness and violence among nations and peoples, I confess that it's a bit more than I can bear. It seems to me that this, to one degree or another, has always been the way of the world, and I see little prospect that things are going to change so long as we have massive poverty in the world, widespread political repression, and a long history of violence among nations and various ethnic groups. There is plenty to make one hopeless about the future, but I think that the collective consciousness of the world will continue to evolve, however glacially, in a positive way. During the meantime, I think it's important for everyone to remember that there is a "butterfly effect" to every act of kindness, every act of tolerance. Every great movement in social evolution has had its genesis in the heart and small actions of a questing individual.

    1. Thanks for visiting my new space, George. I am curious myself about where this will lead.

      My spirit, too, is overwhelmed by these unceasing ways of war, on scales large and small. Your point about the butterfly effect is all I can hang onto, that we each make choices, momentary ones, one after another, which have an effect on the world, however small they seem on such a vast scale. In these pages I seek understanding of those who are unlike me. I feel that to listen and learn are important things, and small pieces of the transformation we hope for. The task seems huge, and yet these tiny doors and windows may connect me/us in unforeseen ways.

  2. I think I am going to enjoy following your journey.When I first started reading blogs, I was initially drawn to two types --- those that shared art and those that had glorious writing. Yours fell into the latter and I've never stopped admiring how you think and how you put words together to share remarkable ideas and thoughts so eloquently. (And when you have photos, they're pretty darned good, too!). Yes, I'll enjoy this trip with you!

    1. Well that is very, very kind of you, Jeanie. I am so grateful that you are here and want to join these ruminations.

      Funny thing is I also want to start a blog with my quilts, which I started up again. :)

  3. I realized after posting this that I had mis-written that I became a mother in 1991. It was 1981! I've fixed the typo.

  4. It will be good to follow you here Ruth, even if sometimes hard. If we had had instantaneous messaging and social networks all throughout history, as we do now, would we see the world today better, more evolved in a positive direction, or worse? One wonders.

    Reading the comments and replies gives me hope that the "butterfly effect" really IS possible and effective. I've been thinking about that every day thus far in this new year. It MUST work. It HAS to work. In fact, I'm really counting on it.....!

    1. Boots, I appreciate your interest in this project. Your question makes me think of instant messaging differently, I must say. There are times when it really is important to know when someone needs help, for instance (and didn't just take another selfie).

      You know you touched me with your own butterfly effect goal, and I have no doubt it will affect others too. xo


Think of this box as an oasis, a caravanserai where we're having a conversation. :)