WHEREIN LIES THE TRUTH?


It’s amazing that we get along as well as we do. I recently read “A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, in which he points out the truly unique thing about human beings–the thing that distinguishes us from the family pet and other animals–is our ability to have a commonly held belief about things that do not exist or cannot be empirically demonstrated at all. At a given time of day, you cannot convince a dog it is not time to eat or go for a walk.

Dr. Harari says “The truly unique feature of Homo Sapiens language is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.”

Before the Cognitive Revolution, many animal and human species could say “Careful! A lion!” Later they acquired the ability to say “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This is about the time that legends, myths gods and religions appeared for the first time.

carnarvon imageThe Carnarvon cave paintings at Queensland, Australia

Aboriginal cave paintings whether in Australia, France or the United States, depict the common beliefs of the people living there at that time.

It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. Why is it important? Because fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting.

Any large-scale human cooperation is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. States are rooted in common national myths.

We seem to gather into ‘silos’ of common belief, clearly demonstrated in the presidential performances here in the United States. One of the most interesting beliefs is that of Donald Trump, who has convinced himself, though not any of the people who supposedly would know, that ‘thousands and thousands of people danced and cheered in the streets of New Jersey, as the World Trade Centers were blown down.

This is reminiscent of the aliens landing in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, or the Loch Ness monster in Scotland who pops up for air every few years. Bigfoot I could believe—maybe.

But the truth is our own, and thank whoever or whatever, that we can cherish our own beliefs.

THE COURAGE OF SMALL THINGS


Rwanda-Landscape_R1_5917_2_-3
Rwanda Landscape Wikipedia

Now and then we come across a story, simply told, about someone who opens a chain of thoughts in our own minds.

This is David Brooks’ inspiring story about his friend Clemantine Wamariya. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. When she was six the genocide began and her world started shrinking. The beautiful land she knew was changed forever.

To escape the mass murders, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away—not toward anything, just away. Away from family, home and friends and not to look back. They left with only the clothes they wore and no food.

They crossed the Akanyaru River living off fruit. Clemantine spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.

Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, gave them a sense that life is arbitrary.

In 2000, Claire got them refugee status in the United States through the International Organization for Migration. Claire went to work as a hotel maid in Chicago. A few years later, Clemantine was one of 50 winners of Oprah Winfrey’s high school essay contest.

In the middle of the 20006 show celebrating the winners, Oprah brought Clemantine and Claire on stage. Oprah asked when was the last time the girls had seen their parents. It had been 12 years. Then Oprah gave them a surprise: “Your family is here!” Her parents, brother and sister had been found in Africa, and now walked onstage. They all fell into one another’s arms. Clemantine’s knees gave out, but her mother held her up.

Clemantine’s story, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives, with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.

In David Brooks’ words, “Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.”

We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricate, fertile ground for misunderstanding.

Clemantine displays the courage of small things: the courage to live with feelings wide open even after trauma: the maturity to accept unanswerable ambiguity; the ability to create tenacious bonds.

David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist, NEW YORK TIMES
July 7, 2015