We were in the kitchen, listening to the radio — Norma preparing dinner, Mara studying for exams — when the bulletin came over the air. The United States had just gone to war with Iraq. Mara, not quite fifteen, looked up in astonishment. Norma put down her knife and wept.
We listened glumly for the next couple of hours, the way you listen to rain hitting the roof the day of a picnic, or a funeral, knowing it’s not going to stop. I didn’t need George Bush to tell me which way the wind was blowing, but I listened to his speech — to his cant about peace, his shameful apology for choosing a military solution to a complex political problem. By turns resigned and outraged, I hooted once or twice, like a school kid jeering at his principal’s wearisome pieties. But fuming at the radio seemed pointless.
The next night, at a candlelight vigil, I stood with Norma and several hundred other anti-war protestors, listening to speeches in the cool evening air. Gazing at the faces reflected in the glow of the candles — old faces seasoned by years of resistance, young faces impossibly fresh and naive — I wanted to feel joined with those around me, experience some solidarity in a struggle that had only just begun. But I had a hard time paying attention. Wax from the candle dripped onto my fingers, stinging a little, while speakers denounced the president and his policy in the Gulf. Though embarrassed to admit it, I was bored. The most powerful country in the world, my country, had gone to war — with the aggrieved honor of a mafioso don determined to rub out a rival — and I was as unmoved by the anti-war slogans as by the pro-administration propaganda.
I didn’t fault the speakers who, at a time of great urgency, said what needed to be said. To oppose the war is vital, no matter if the words are cliches. After all, war is the oldest cliche; killing each other takes little imagination — just a rock, or a spear, or an army at your command. Criticizing the speeches for their lack of eloquence would be like standing in a room filled with smoke — and insisting on a better word for “fire.”
Still, I was troubled. Perhaps I caught a whiff of the same self-righteousness that characterized so much Vietnam-era protest; I was against that war, too, but knew that crucifying Johnson, or Nixon, wasn’t the answer. When hate answers hate, it’s always the wrong answer. But what’s the right answer? Shall I pretend I’m a better man than George Bush, the way he pretends to be better than Saddam Hussein? When I spend money on something I don’t really need, am I different from the president ignoring the needs of the poor? When I threaten and bluster; when I yell at my wife because she’s stepped over some line; when I deny my feelings because I don’t want to lose face — who am I then?
Thomas Merton said that at the root of all war is fear — not so much the fear we have of one another but the fear we have of everything; if we’re not sure when someone else will turn around and kill us, we’re even less sure when we’ll turn around and kill ourselves. Wasn’t it just a year ago, the cold war finally over, that we seemed to be at the dawn of a new era of peace? Perhaps we needed to be reminded that nuclear weapons are the symptom, not the cause, of our anxiety; that changing the world is intimately wedded to changing ourselves.
I’m not suggesting we have to be perfectly awakened before taking a stand; indeed, saying no to the war might be part of our awakening. Yet we need to acknowledge the poignancy of our dilemma, and remember that politics is as personal as the violence and gentleness in each of us — as personal as where we drive our car, what kind of food we eat, how many knickknacks and labor-saving devices we own. To say no to one’s desires, to arrogance, to fear is never easy — not for me, not for Bush or Hussein. “It is particularly hard on us pacifists,” Barbara Demming wrote, “to face our own anger. It is particularly painful for us — hard on our pride, too — to have to discover in ourselves murderers.”
The body at war with the mind, the mind divided like a city into good neighborhoods and bad — at war with nature, at war with human nature — no wonder we wrestle each other into the grave. If we believe it’s wrong to love ourselves, as most of us do, then we can’t really love anyone, not our enemies and not our friends. Instead, we reach for security: a promise that someone else will love us, an insurance policy from Allstate, an antimissile missile defense. Going to a demonstration is important, yet the barricades are everywhere, ancient and enduring. You find them in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the mirror when you take a long, hard look at yourself.
On my way back from the rally, my thoughts turned to something I’d read recently — something that had nothing and everything to do with the war. It was a tribute to Scott Nearing, a man I admired greatly, written by his wife Helen, who carries on the work they began a half-century ago. Brief and tender as a last goodbye, it reminded me of Randolph Bourne’s dictum that “one keeps healthy in wartime not by a series of religious and political consolations that something good is coming out of it all, but by a vigorous assertion of values in which war has no part.”
In the 1920s, Scott Nearing was a professor of economics whose increasingly radical views got him fired from two universities. He was even expelled from the Communist party for being too outspoken and not submitting to party rules. Unable to get his writings published and often denied permission to speak in public, he and Helen left New York City in 1932 to start a new life — leaving behind a society, they wrote, “gripped by depression and unemployment, falling prey to fascism, and on the verge of another worldwide military free-for-all.”
They moved to a run-down farm in rural Vermont, where they sought “a simple, satisfying life on the land, to be devoted to mutual aid and harmlessness, with an ample margin of leisure in which to do personally constructive and creative work.” They wanted to live frugally and decently — raising their own food, cutting wood for fuel, putting up their own buildings. Well before the energy crisis, they only occasionally drove their old truck; they preferred hand tools to power tools; they saw physical work not as a burden but as a pleasurable and healthy way to survive.
“Work,” Scott wrote, “prevents one from getting old. My work is my life. I cannot think of one without the other.” Active intellectually as well as physically, Scott continued to write about politics and economics. The Nearings published the books themselves, as no one else would. Scott also collaborated with Helen on a series of books about their homesteading experiences — the best known of which was Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. Discovering a tattered copy of that book in the early 1970s — nearly twenty years after it was published — inspired me to leave the city, too. If my allegiance to the simple life has wavered over the years, my respect for the Nearings has never diminished.
Scott and Helen worked their Vermont homestead for thirty years, until the ski crowds came. Then they fled to Maine, where they started all over again. Nearly fifty when he began the Vermont experiment, Scott didn’t believe in doctors, pills, or hospitals, yet he lived to be one hundred. Though he died several years ago, I didn’t know — until reading Helen’s story in a recent issue of In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture — that he died when he decided to, by purposeful fasting for a month and a half at the very end.
“Many people begin to get old in their sixties,” Helen writes. “Scott only began to be old in his nineties. Up to then if anyone called him old I was outraged, because he neither looked nor felt old. Sure, he had plenty of wrinkles. They came in his fifties from a lot of hard work in the sun. But failing and getting feeble? No.
“He did more than his share of mental and physical work up to his last years. At ninety-eight, he said, ‘Well, at least I can still split and carry in the wood.’ And when he was close to the end, lying in our living room, his one regret . . . was watching me lug in the wood for our kitchen stove. ‘I wish I could help with that,’ he said. He was a help unto the end.”
Helen recounts that one evening, at the dinner table, Scott announced, “I think I won’t eat anymore.” She told him she understood. “I think I would do that, too,” she said. “Animals know when to stop. They go off in a corner and leave off food.”
She put Scott on juices. He became weaker, “as gaunt and thin as Gandhi.” One day he said he just wanted water, nothing more; from then on, for ten days, he had only water. He was bedridden and had little strength but spoke to Helen daily.
Two weeks after his hundredth birthday, when it seemed he was slipping away, Helen sat beside him on the bed. She writes:
“We were quiet together; no interruptions, no doctors or hospitals. I said, ‘It’s all right, Scott. Go right along. You’ve lived a good life and are finished with things here. Go on and up — up into the light. We love you and let you go. It’s all right.’
“In a soft voice, with no quiver or pain or disturbance, he said, ‘All . . . right,’ and breathed slower and slower till there was no movement anymore and he was gone out of his body as easily as a leaf drops from the tree in autumn, slowly twisting and falling to the ground.
“So he returned to his Maker after a long life, well lived and devoted to the general welfare. He was principled and dedicated all through. He lived at peace with himself and the world because he was in tune: he practiced what he preached. He lived his beliefs. He could die with a good conscience.
“As to myself and my old age, I try to follow in his footsteps. It is not so easy homesteading alone, but I carry on. A few more years and I will also experience the great Transition. May I live halfway as good a life and die as good a death.”
Under the clear night sky, walking back to my car, I thought about Scott and Helen Nearing. I thought about eloquent words, and how they pale before an eloquent life. Then I turned on the news for the latest on the bombing.