"For nothing can deny life – nothing can deny love – nothing will conquer love..."
— Bernhard Rolf Klausener
2016 was the year I needed my father's counsel the most. I've been shell-shocked. I've never understood the world less, and never felt more vulnerable. I decided to spend the holidays communing with my late father by unsealing a musty box of his letters and professional correspondences. Meticulously organized by my mother after his death in 1991, it contained detailed CVs, postcards, field notes from his myriad UN postings, and a touching mass-letter he sent to friends 50 years ago this week in 1966.
"As I write, jets are screaming in the blackened skies, flares are hanging curtains of light across defense perimeters..."
Written in Saigon at the half-way mark of the Vietnam War and his first marriage, I was smoked by the letter's deep empathy, grim realities, and humility, all encased in a fervent if weary hope. I was sure I'd been raised by a pessimist.
Despite his devotion to friends and community, he was a detached husband and father. Those conflicting aspects of his personality always gnawed at me, but I've never felt more sympathy and forgiveness for the man than I do today: his resume was a marathon of wartime humanitarianism and tireless selflessness. I'm not making excuses here, but holding on to that kind of resentment takes a lot more energy than thinking: "It's cool, Bernie. I get it. You were pooped. I'm all sorts of flawed, but I'm gonna be just fine."
"Sometimes Pamela and I feel that we really belong to the wandering ghosts of the grey fogs of prehistory...the same feelings assaulted us as we viewed post WWII Europe, as we remembered the Middle East, where legion after legion replaced themselves, inexorably, behind the barbed wires of history."
I don't know a lot of people that weren't affected by the year's upheavals, atrocities, and losses. Deeper still, I imagine many of you experienced your own challenges, betrayals, or personal setbacks. I'm not entirely sure what I want to tell you, but I think it has something to do with the weight of hope. I sometimes feel like my father needed to carry enough hope around for the rest of us. I think it crushed him a little, watching people cause harm to one another, decade after decade. I think part of me has been carrying that burden for him for reasons I've never been able to explain. I've re-read the letter's closing sentence a dozen times wondering if he was offering solace, an urgent plea, or even a request to his friends:
"At times it is hard...at times it is hopeless...but we have faith in your goodness, in the validity of acting out the best in us — the best, which we all know is in mankind itself. It does not rhyme...well then, make it rhyme, each one of you in your own life, and remember, you do not have to be in Saigon to do so."
It might have been all those things, but as we enter 2017, I feel like he was just trying to say that hope isn't anything we need to carry. Hope is something we can all embody, individually, for no one other than ourselves. And the simple act of holding hope can carry with it change, however slow, subtle, or improbable.
Wishing you all hope and lightness this year,