On Sunday, I saw on the NPR website that Peter Matthiesen had died. I have read excerpts and scraps of his writing for many years, and my understanding of the man—East Coast WASP Zen Buddhist priest environmental writer—is more than enough to keep his works in my orbit. I'll probably skip the LSD, but all else seems quite applicable.
Koan-cidentally (had to), the New York Times Magazine on Sunday carried a brief profile of Matthiesen. I hadn't known that he had been a Cold World spy, or that he had co-founded The Paris Review in part as a cover for his espionage on potentially Communist activities in 1950s Paris.
For all that Matthiesen wrote and did, it was the small kernels of his exit from the C.I.A. that struck me most—he became “disillusioned by the C.I.A., which in his estimation was filled mostly with Ivy League stuffed shirts who didn’t know or care anything about the poor people whom the communists were trying to reach.”
Disillusion implies that there was a time of illusion, a time when the status quo was an unquestioned goal. My Pantheon of personal saints, poets, writers, prophets and worthy humans have this moment of disillusion in common. They find the powerful to be unjust, the accepted codes of conduct untruthful. They go to the woods, they go to jail, they burn at the stake for their truth, they speak truth past power and to anyone who will listen, they make salt, plant trees, dance for revolutions, love intimately and widely and well, and live well amid their landscapes and loved ones. They refuse to pretend to see the Emperor’s clothes, and live their lives joyfully—messily—in making this honesty manifest.
Kindly, through their lives and words and actions, they pulled down the curtain for me before I knew there was one.
There are a lot of us who grew up or have come to a point where we sort of skip the sort of ultimate disillusion, Crisis of Faith in Veracity of the American Dream. I can’t remember a time when I believed that world powers were altruistic, that politics were clean, that companies had any interest beyond their own profits, and that Norman Rockwell painted from life. We who’ve read a lot, traveled a lot, and most of all, keep our eyes open as we go through our own brief lives, we make adjustments to our aspirations based on this knowledge. Many of us were born into and bred on the realizations of our forerunners that there is a lot of unkind, unjust hypocrisy and violence woven into the fabric of our cultural way of being.
Personally, horrible things no longer surprise me. I’m not at peace with them, certainly, but it seems disrespectful and willfully ignorant to be continually surprised by poverty, racism, sexism, violence, political corruption, corporate greed, environmental devastation, economic inequality, advertising promising you can buy your way to happiness and all the rest of the rather grotesque aspects of current life.
If we are surprised by such living nightmares, it is because we expected, wanted something else. I believe that as long as we know such things, and find them morally unjust, we retain the power and responsibility to change what is wrong. We can and must make a better world.
I don’t believe that it is cynical to find flaws in the system, and to point them out. There is nothing, I think, more joyous in and celebratory of the world than to tell the truth. I was raised reading Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius thousands of times—the charge to make the world even more beautiful is the weightiest heritage I carry. Combined with what my education has allowed me to see and learn and witness and process, I’ll happily spend my life burnishing the endangered beauty of this world.
We can’t rest on the crumbs of our heroes’ disillusions, and we cannot wallow in our own recognition of hypocrisy and injustice. Because it is not enough to be disillusioned—that alone is just a self-aggrandizing cynicism, a cheap ticket to avoid engaging with the world. Abandoning an illusion allows for embracing reality. If you are disillusioned, it is because you know more than a built system can contain. The world in all its beauty and multitudes contains more than any of us will ever know. I'd rather spend a life exploring the limitless than bound to limits.
In making the world clean and just for all, we the hopeful disillusioned are all in this together. It’s a ragged relay across time and space. Those who came before—the Matthiesens and Thoreaus and Parks and Joans of Arcs—their task was to crack things open, to start the whispers that become words that become voices that become actions.
We, who would tattoo the words and wisdom of these people on our bodies, our task is to further the actions. The canon of knowledge that has come before, the lives lived and died for these truths, these are our catapult, our springboard, the giants’ shoulders we might fly from.
I don’t know exactly where we’re headed. In going off the script and off the map, it gets a little unclear. But, if we wanted only certainty and security, we would have stuck with the status quo. However, there are more of us in this uncharted leg of the relay, I believe, than ever before. It is going to take many sweet combinations of rising up and stepping away from the norm to find each other, but I have utter faith that we’ll get where we long to be. At times, it is enough know the variety of ways our co-runners are carrying the baton forward, towards where this goes. In fact, I believe we are there even as we are en route, in the thousand different ways in which we each know what is Right and what is not in how we live and what we live for, in how we make the world ever more truly beautiful.