Money which my wife and I now have but never had for years seems to provoke the belief in others that we should have a kind of commitment toward open-mindedness, a feeling that we must pay obligatory lip service to the “liberal” issues that have forced their way into the court of today’s public opinion. Some have the unfortunately naive belief that none have ever before wrestled with the tragedy of the human condition or may know more about it than they themselves.
It’s as if Tolstoy didn’t worry over goodness, kindness, and truth, or ever write “War and Peace,” or Socrates himself didn’t have such concerns about what I still believe is the ultimate obligation of the soul. Or that Dostoevsky—once put to a firing squad before his sentence was commuted to seven years hard labour for a crime of almost nothing—didn’t proclaim that one’s individual journey must be toward spiritual kindness, without which man cannot and will not exist.
That true independence, and the only independence there is, comes, as Solzhenitsyn knew, from nobility of self and fidelity toward others.
Perhaps we should be reminded today that the great Roman playwright Terence was born a slave, and that Greek philosopher Epictetus was also born into slavery and was beaten until deformed, but spoke of truth and goodness as well as we ever did.
I will not forget my friend Alden Nowlan, born into poverty and beaten from the age of two, who went to work in the woods at age 12 with a Grade 5 education. One might be pressed to name a greater Canadian poet.
Or my friend Eric Trethewey, who at 14 had to fend off his stepfather who had just stabbed his mother. He went on to become a pro boxer, with a doctorate in Victorian poet Mathew Arnold. He understood Arnold’s poems and essays, and his own hardship, as well as anyone I could mention, and never went begging to anyone.
I myself was born prematurely at seven months with a damaged left side and had to fight bullies with one good arm. But so what? That is not a harsh penance.
For you see, as quaint as it is, what Nowlan said to me once is true: “These are things rarely discussed by gentlemen.”
I agree wholeheartedly.
One day some years back, I was invited to a party where I had a conversation with well-to-do-people. They had vacation homes here in my province, and I had known many of them for many years. The conversations covered all kinds of topics, from gender equality to spearfishing, but there was a certain one that I remember.
It happened that two young people from the local reserve had broken into the cottage of an elderly couple, stolen a purse and wallet, assaulted both the man and woman about the face, damaged their property, and hijacked their car.
I looked at the diamond on her finger, her painted fingernails, the gold watch she wore, and the glass of white wine which seemed an essential part of her declaration. Others chimed in as well, and it soon became a heady topic. What must be accepted was this: We were the guilty party, not the two who had committed the crime, and the two perpetrators were the real victims, not the elderly couple who was assaulted.
“What does our guest think?” the first woman asked.
I looked about, realizing I was the guest. (I had been the invitee—the writer who was well known.) She did not like me and in truth I did not like her. I never cared for using glibness as a part of one’s cultivated accoutrements. I thought for an instant of Allan Legere, the serial killer who trampled over a couple in Black River, New Brunswick, in the same odious way.
“I blame them no more than anyone else—but I refuse forever, for their own sake, to blame them less,” I said.
“You mean you think that we have treated the First Nations fairly?”
“That is not the question you initially asked.”
“But have we?”
“No—they were treated deplorably, horribly. But nor have we treated many I grew up with fairly. Many kids suffered things you would not know.”
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“Many had little or nothing, and never took a cent that wasn’t theirs or bullied a soul. I could name 10 white and First Nations’ men and women who grew up every bit as harshly and would never, ever do what these two did. And to believe someone is blameless because of their past condemns them to the very acts they commit and lessens not only their moral obligations, but the moral obligation of others.”
“Ha,” she said. “You don’t believe in forgiveness?”
“Of course I do, and empathy even more so. And because I believe in empathy and forgiveness, I say what I do. If one forgives and has true empathy, he or she doesn’t just condone. It simply qualifies and lessens the humanity of those we condone by doing so.”
Canadians have become deeply divided, and have censured their own feelings, their own moral integrity, and even their sense of right and wrong, goodness and evil, for fear of being found out. Not that they are racists, but they fear that they may be considered such. And so, for those at the party, their affidavits had to be in place before them on the well-polished table of conventional wisdom. They all seemed to expunge critical thinking which allowed for them a kind of euphoric and self-gratifying atonement, which would last only as long as the party did.
The day became muted, and those who had invited me to the gathering to show me off, to tell people they knew me when I was a little boy, hobbling behind them on the beach, were suddenly embarrassed that they had invited me, and seagulls cried off in the bay announcing a storm.