Wednesday, October 14, 2020

October 11-14: The Oxford Pledge, Happiness and Home, Silver Anniversary

 Merton on the injustices of war . . .

I forget how the picketing ended: whether we waited for someone else to come and take over, or whether we just decided we had done enough and took off our signs and went away. But any way I had the feeling that I had done something that was good, if only as a gesture: for it certainly did not seem to have accomplished anything. But at least I had made a kind of public confession of faith. I had said that I was against war—against all war. That I believed wars to be unjust. That I thought they could only ruin and destroy the world.... Someone will ask where I managed to get all that out of the placard I was carrying. But as far as I remember, that was the party line that year—at least it was the line that was handed out to the public. 

I can still hear the tired, determined chanting of students at campus demonstrations: “Books, not Battleships!” “No More war!” There was no distinction made. It was war as such that we hated and said we wanted no more of. We wanted books, not battleships, we said. We were all burned up with the thirst for knowledge, for intellectual and spiritual improvement. And here the wicked capitalists were forcing the government to enrich them by buying armaments and building battleships and planes and tanks, when the money ought to be spent on volumes of lovely cultural books for us students. Here we were on the threshold of life, we cried: our hands were reaching out for education and culture. Was the government going to put a gun in them, and send us off on another imperialistic war? And the line of reasoning behind all this definitely held, in 1935, that all war was imperialistic war. War, according to the party line in 1935, was an exclusively capitalist amusement. It was purely and simply a device to enrich the armament manufacturers and the international bankers, coining fortunes for them with the blood of the workers and students. 

One of the big political events of that spring was a “Peace Strike.” I was never quite able to understand by virtue of what principle a student could manage to consider himself on strike by cutting a class. Theoretically, I suppose, it amounted to a kind of defiance of authority: but it was a defiance that did not cost anybody anything except perhaps the student himself. And besides, I was quite used to cutting classes whenever I felt like it, and it seemed to me rather bombastic to dress it up with the name of “strike.” However, on another of those grey days, we went on “strike,” and this time there were several hundred people in the gymnasium, and even one or two members of the faculty got up on the platform and said something. 

They were not all Communists, but all the speeches had more or less the same burden: that it was absurd to even think of such a thing as a just war in our time. Nobody wanted war: there was no justification for any war of any kind on the part of anybody, and consequently, if a war did start, it would certainly be the result of a capitalist plot, and should be firmly resisted by everybody with any kind of a conscience. 

That was just the kind of a position that attracted me, that appealed to my mind at that time. It seemed to cut across all complexities by its sweeping and uncompromising simplicity. All war was simply unjust, and that was that. The thing to do was to fold your arms and refuse to fight. If everybody did that, there would be no more wars. 

That cannot seriously have been the Communist position, but at least I thought it was. And anyway, the theme of this particular meeting was the “Oxford Pledge.” The words of that pledge were written out in huge letters on a great big placard that hung limply in the air over the speakers’ platform, and all the speakers waved their arms at it and praised it, and repeated it, and urged it upon us, and in the end we all took it, and acclaimed it, and solemnly pledged ourselves to it. 

Perhaps everybody has, by now, forgotten what the Oxford Pledge was. It was a resolution that had been passed by the Oxford Union, which said that they, these particular Oxford undergraduates, simply would refuse to fight for King and Country in any war whatever. The fact that a majority of those who happened to be at a meeting of a university debating society, one evening, voted that way certainly did not commit the whole university, or even any one of the voters, to what the resolution said, and it was only other student groups, all over the world, that had transformed it into a “pledge.” And this “pledge” was then taken by hundreds of thousands of students in all kinds of schools and colleges and universities with some of the solemnity that might make it look as if they intended to bind themselves by it—the way we were doing at Columbia that day. All this was usually inspired by the Reds, who were very fond of the Oxford Pledge that year.... 

However, the next year the Spanish Civil war broke out. The first thing I heard about that war was that one of the chief speakers at the 1935 Peace Strike, and one who had been so enthusiastic about this glorious pledge that we would never fight in any war, was now fighting for the Red Army against Franco, and all the N.S.L. and the Young Communists were going around picketing everybody who seemed to think that the war in Spain was not holy and sacrosanct and a crusade for the workers against Fascism. 

The thing that perplexes me is: what did all the people in the gymnasium at Columbia, including myself, think we were doing when we took that pledge? What did a pledge mean to us? What was, in our minds, the basis of such an obligation? How could we be obliged? Communists don’t believe in any such thing as a natural law, or the law of conscience, although they seem to. They are always crying out against the injustice of capitalism and vet, as a matter of fact, they very often say in the same breath that the very concept of justice is simply a myth devised by the ruling classes to beguile and deceive the proletariat.

Obviously, Merton, in his maturity, grows to dislike and mistrust communism as a belief system.  Certainly, this disillusionment has something to do with Marx and Engels' views on religion:  "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness."  The Trappist monk Merton is all about the opium.  It's in religion that Merton finally finds the home he sought after for most of his younger life.  Merton's happiness isn't illusory.  It's as tangible as mushrooms in a forest or an iceberg in the Atlantic.

The Dalai Lama said once, "The purpose of our lives is to be happy."  Buddha says, "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases by being shared."  Charles Dickens wrote, "Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes."  And Mother Teresa said, "Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier."

Everyone has something to say about happiness.  Advice to give.  From Karl Marx to Mother Teresa.  Achieving happiness is the Holy Grail, and every person seems to have the treasure map to where it's buried or hidden.  Of course, after traveling all over Oz, to the Emerald City and the Wicked Witch of the West's castle and back, we probably all end up like Dorothy.  We find out that happiness has been with us every step of the way.  Happiness and home.  Here's what Dorothy says:

Well, I think that it . . . That it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em.  And it's that if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.

We all carry happiness within us.  It's just about recognizing it without expectations.  Right now, my son's happiness rests in a bowl of Ramen noodles.  My daughter, at the moment, is following the Yellow Brick Road, trying to figure out the whole happiness thing.  For me tonight, I found happiness in the person I've called the love of my life for 25 years.  Our silver anniversary.

Many people in my life never thought we'd make it this far, from family members to therapists.  It has been quite the journey, filled with obstacles.  Mental illness.  Addiction.  Separation.  Reconciliation.  Rededication.  Renewal.  I've experienced moments of absolute despair and absolute joy.  If anyone ever says marriage is easy, I have a few stories I'd like to share with that person.

However, for an hour or so this evening, I was reminded of what real happiness felt like.  It was right in my own back yard, as Dorothy says, and it had nothing to do with money or fame or Nobel Prizes.  It was about being with the person I've called my partner for a quarter of a century.  A moment in a restaurant, sharing food, laughing, feeling the intimacy of time between us. 

I'm not a fool.  I know that happiness could end tomorrow.  However, many people never get to experience milestones like 25 years of marriage.  Notice that I didn't say "wedded bliss," because I think that term diminishes what being with a person for that long means.  It means there were sleepless nights.  Angry words.  Maybe betrayals.  But there were also shared joys and sorrows.  Moments when your partner picked up the broken pieces of you and put you back together.

So, tonight, I celebrate the miracle of happiness in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  I'm clicking my heels together.  Three times.

Repeat after Saint Marty:  "There's no place like home.  There's no place like happiness.  There's no place like love."

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