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How the Light Gets In

In 1992, when Leonard Cohen released his album “The Future,” the twentieth century had just concluded with the largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but the beginning of the twenty-first century still lay two years off, when the World Wide Web would debut. In this in-between period, Francis Fukuyama was hardly alone in thinking that “history” was over, that liberal democracy and neoliberal economics had conquered the world, never again to be challenged. Cohen, the Canadian-born poet turned folksinger, knew better. Looking back, the title track of his album has the eerie ring of prophecy:

Gimme back the Berlin Wall
Gimme Stalin and Saint Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother
It is murder
Things are gonna slide
Slide in all directions…

Even in 1992, you didn’t need to be a prophet to see that the lion had yet to lie down with the lamb. That was the year of the siege of Sarajevo, the opening act of the tragedy of the Yugoslav wars, the year of the first Armenia-Azerbaijan war at the southern edge of the former Soviet Union, and the year Somalia’s agony began in earnest. It soon became clear that all that had ended with the conclusion of the twentieth century was the Cold War and the worldwide conflict between so-called Communism and capitalism. In our time, history seems to have gone into a strange reverse gear, with the reemergence of the post-World War I chaos of rising aggressive nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s vision of universal national self-determination yielding, not universal peace, but something close to its opposite. Hyper-nationalist Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks more and more like Hitler Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, the starting salvo of a world war, only this time with nuclear attacks more and more likely.

As individuals we all feel helpless and terrified in historical moments like this one, at least if we are paying full attention and not letting ourselves become numbed or diverted either by the myriad of other real crises or the plethora of distractions from badly behaved celebrities and social media sensations that last several seconds apiece. We are all locked in the out-of-control passenger jet of history, and we must ask ourselves, do we resign ourselves to the seemingly inevitable smash and let all those distractions outrage and entertain us until that moment, or do we take the small actions that lie within our small power?

In Martin Buber’s version of the Hasidic Jewish folktales, he tells a story about the eighteenth-century spiritual master Rabbi Zusya of Hannopil, roughly halfway between Kyiv and Lviv in today’s once-again war-torn Ukraine. When the rabbi died, he came to “stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, ‘Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?’ But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?’”

We are not called upon in our “little” lives to be President of the United States, to do all that we could were we in Joe Biden’s shoes—and any student of history will tell you that the freedom of action of the president himself is far more limited than it might appear from the outside; to quote one of Karl Marx’s more useful pieces of wisdom, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” But we are called upon to be kind to the people in our limited circle, to hand out water and a snack to the beggar with the torn cardboard sign standing on the streetcorner, to visit those we love who are reaching the end of their lives in nursing homes, to hold our temper with our partners and children and friends and say a kind word instead of a sharp one. We are also called upon to do what we can politically and socially—not just casting our vote, but picking the cause we care most about and joining together locally and globally with other like-minded folks to take action. We cannot end all the murderous hatred of the world as lone individuals, and even working all together, we have no assurance that we can hold back the advancing night of ignorance and nationalist rage and chaos. But to return to where I started these musings, with that album “The Future” by that other Jewish mystic, Leonard of Montreal—he has another, gentler song of prophecy on it, “Anthem,” wherein he tells us:

Yeah, the wars, they will be fought again
The holy dove, she will be caught again
Bought and sold, and bought again
The dove is never free

So all we can do is this, he goes on to sing in his world-weary, gentle voice:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything—That’s how the light gets in


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