Editor’s Notebook: ‘The human world is not an easy place to live’
Another beautiful day on the approach to the summit of Mount Kearsarge. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
“As I climb the mountain path, I ponder –
“If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.”
I’ve been reading “Kusamakura” by Natsume Soseki over the past week – slowly – which I believe is the way it’s meant to be read. From the first lines, quoted above, the reader is invited to meander, to breathe deeply, to ponder – and there’s no hurry.
Inspired by the nameless artist who serves as Soseki’s narrator, I returned to my own mountain path on Saturday. This time we drove north toward the far side of Mount Kearsarge to hike a longer trail with a slight uptick in degree of difficulty. But “difficulty” is a relative term: Regardless of the trail the hiker chooses, this is a mountain not for the brave few but the eager many.
It’s a popular spot among tourists and locals alike – even more so on a perfect Saturday morning at the beginning of a long weekend – and the people we passed both going up and coming down were like extras in a commercial selling idealized America: a variety of cultures, generations, and languages harmoniously represented along a shared path. “Good morning.” “Hi there.” “How are you?” Few things are as uplifting as the casual warmth of strangers.
I could have happily remained in the woods until dusk, a smiling greeter of fellow seekers of the summit, but too many bits of life waited in the thicker air below.
Soon we were back on the road heading east for a small reunion of our extended COVID bubble. An educator I’ve known for a long time was there, and we talked about how uniquely difficult that role is these days. It’s not the kids, mind you, but the adults who are so overwhelmed by fear and anger in this long pandemic that they see no other choice but to recast neighbors as enemies for committing the sin of caution.
He told a few stories about the anger – maybe fury is a better word – directed not only toward him but others he works with who are completely disconnected from any of the decision-making regarding mask mandates or other COVID-19 precautions. He told the stories not with anger but rather something like resigned bewilderment. I wanted to remind him that things will be better when the pandemic recedes, but I’m not sure either of us believe that.
The overseers of New Hampshire education are hardly alone in these tense times. Michelle Cottle, a member of the editorial board at the New York Times, provides a roundup of sorts this week in a column headlined, “America’s school board meetings are getting weird – and scary.” From Tennessee to Florida to Pennsylvania, the story is largely the same: “It can be tough for an individual or a small band of people to command the attention of a member of Congress or a state lawmaker,” Cottle writes. “But school board members are right there in the community – with meetings open to all! – just waiting to be screamed at. Think of it as open-mic night for the disgruntled.”
While it’s tempting – and effortless – to view “Angry America” as a monolith, honesty requires acknowledgment of human complexity – and what is more complex than the collective backstories of a crowd of disgruntled American citizens? I wish words could be written that would persuade people to listen more and yell less, but in my experience even the most gentle broaching of the causes of national division just makes people dig in deeper.
I suppose there is no right or wrong answer to how we should handle the rage of the day, although voting for responsible leaders and the avoidance of violence seem fundamental. I believe, too, that it’s important to challenge misinformation with facts whenever possible. But I have no idea how to turn down the temperature on these debates.
Without answers, it seems reasonable to fall back on the unspoken code of the mountain path. It’s not much, I know, but this is a difficult place and time to live. Maybe the best we can do right now is share the trail and offer human warmth to all those we encounter, whether going up or coming down.
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