Beautiful as the sky


WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again,
and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

–by Walt Whitman

In this poem I like the metaphor of death and night being sisters, each repeating their cycle again and again because we don’t get things right. Our individual and corporate beliefs are incongruent, one with the other. My dead enemy whom I kill is a god, and I kiss the one I kill. How do I make sense of these warring factions within myself? How do I resolve the desire to kill and to embrace, to fight and to forgive? I admire that Whitman here implies that the war is not only with the enemy, but with and within ourselves.

Communities in conflict can find shared values, shared priorities. For example, factions can share values of families and safety. In their conflicts, however, it might appear that one faction values family over safety. This group might wish to condone certain types of celebration of family (say, open flames on birthday cakes in restaurants). Still another might view birthdays as childish and unhealthy and ungodly. One of these groups might wish to prohibit some behaviors (say, sparklers on cakes in public places), while allowing for limited use of single birthday candles on cupcakes in restaurants). Another of the groups might appear to value safety over families, but in reality they have a religious tradition that limits the scope of the expression of their valuing of family and safety.

The apparent irreconcilable differences among these groups show up in argument and debate about whose beliefs are correct. At times, they are expressed as moral or intellectual superiority. But at the core, these debates and expressions belie the uneasy resolution or ambivalence about deeply held values and how they are prioritized. The old systems that sought to reconcile these differences are not our own, but are borrowed from people we don’t know and have not met.

DSCN9729In communities, the work of reconciling differences between individuals and groups must include the reconciliation of the war of values within, a war often waged with the unexamined past. Shedding the light of introspection on our ambivalence opens us to reconciling the apparently irreconcilable, making community possible and us as beautiful as the sky.

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