As 2011 comes to an end, I feel a somberness lying heavy on the world. Christmas and the lights of all religions, seem to have finally dimmed for me under those timeless shadows of greed, separateness and man’s inhumanity to man.
I am a child of the Sixties. I reveled in “flower power.” To walk amongst fields of daisies and be energized by the perfection of nature, to be driven by hope instead of stymied by despair, to carry a lantern showing that I too had a voice and that perhaps someone out there would find meaning in what I had to say.
I grew up during the Vietnam War. Every generation has its wars of remembrance, but I wonder how future generations will ever know that peace is even a possibility when those in power never see further than their own myopic visions of only achieving more power — at whatever cost — to their own and to other peoples, to the planet that we live on, to all the other forms of life that live here too, to the air that we breathe and the water that we need. Must it be ‘you OR me’ until no one is left standing? With all our technological brilliance, will we ever become smart enough to understand that ‘you AND me’ is the only way that OUR species can survive?
In his essay TO INVENT FIRE — which I consider to be one of the most compelling and important statements of our time — author Joe Henry writes: “There is no one among us who will light the world. You may use all of your days igniting the empty flares huddled and peopling the darkness, but you will leave only darkness behind you, for the fire is not in the torch, the fire is in the heart, and each heart must learn it for itself or not at all.”
Whether revealing the travails of Wyoming ranch life, as Henry does in his stunning first work of fiction, LIME CREEK (Random House); or speaking to each individual’s responsibility as ultimately the only hope for mankind, as he does in TO INVENT FIRE; Joe Henry seems to speak to truth without artifice and from the ground up.
I am delighted to share TO INVENT FIRE with you, with the hope that it will help to ignite that flame in you that as it spreads will indeed bring light to where before there was only the darkness.
To Invent Fire
By Joe Henry
I am much too concerned with the actual earth and what walks on it to spend my small time here seeking to define such abstractions as capitalism and socialism, and broader still, society and country. As most of us, I too was raised on such enigmatic concepts as sacrifice and sin and duty and more, but they started to fall away from me when I began to understand that the inventions that gave warmth and comfort to those who needed them were useless to me, and that it felt better and seemed truer to be out in the cold, struggling to invent fire, than to be in the clubhouse on the other side of the hill soft and fat and nodding off in the heat of all that acquiescence. Better even to freeze to death out there, having failed, than to parrot words I did not believe and for that subtle lie to be on the inside. Whatever the tests that broke me and in time strengthened and led me to an even more secure sense of my own integrity, they were not pursued out of a need for the affirmation of others; rather those confrontations were dictated by one abiding hunger in me: the need to know. And someone else’s knowledge, I found, was never my own, for the crucible is the experience. There is no knowledge of the flame, even if you lie with the mutilated who has arisen from the flame, unless you pluck up your courage and give yourself to the flame also. If you do reach that point at the edge of the blaze, you can never know beforehand if you will emerge or be destroyed, but to hold back in fear of that possible consummation is the greater destruction, for you continue to live, unscarred, but you know to the depths of your being that the knowledge you draw from and bring forth is someone else’s knowledge, and that in truth you still do not know.
Those whose bent is to pilot the great machines of society and country and socialism and capitalism, fueled by those man-made ethers of sacrifice and sin and duty and so on, conceive of their vehicles with one vast all-encompassing seat back there in the passenger-section, for “The People,” and they dream and preen and preach and plot and even kill for The Good of The People; but this elaborate contrivance of theirs is but falsehood based on myth which is manufactured and fed back into the atmosphere to feed the lie that is the wheels and wings of their wondrous conveyance, an extravagant monstrosity which merely provides the fellas up front with seats of their own. And try as you might to define this “people” they speak of and you invariably discover only countless individual creatures who identify themselves by their own hungers and fears and wisdoms and evasions, with perhaps their own driver’s licenses to someday pilot their own such vehicles, insignificant on a single retread or colossal too with a thousand beating wings.
There is no ascension unless you have persisted in the mud and clinging clay to finally fashion the wing that is fine enough to carry you aloft. Is it not easier to cry for the lepers of the world, even to spend the time of your life trying to lessen their pain, if you do so from that unvoiced part of you that would dabble in someone else’s travail rather than confront some basic lacking in yourself and deal with that impoverishment until you have found its source and gained enough wisdom and courage in that quest to turn that deficiency into a wealth? If the ripple of that discovery in the solitary pond of your own soul ever does reach the leper you yearn toward, then that spark of enlightenment will do far more than all your conspicuous ministrations, but the effect will probably never be perceived and you will pass on, not knowing that in some cosmic way your being has made a difference.
The power is not in The People. The power is in each bare integer, each fraction of the whole, so that the drunkard who dies in his vomit on 42nd Street, and the senator who dies in his blood on the hotel kitchen floor, and the Viet Cong who dies blown to pieces in a Delta rice-paddy, are no lesser for their deaths than you or I or the Collected Media of the World’s designated Human-of-the-Century. And who’s to say that that well-applauded person ever would have come to the realizations that allowed him (or her) to visibly touch the world’s collected media unless he had witnessed Danny, his high school chum, dying with gritted teeth in a fleshless face that had been the darling of all who knew him of cancer at 17, or happened on the photograph in the Washington Post or the Bombay Journal of a fat man in Tuscaloosa blowing life back into some little black kid pulled from a segregated swimming pool in Alabama. Maybe it’s Danny and the little black kid who deserve the medal, for having made the statesman.
If you are concerned with humankind, you must rightly perceive the object of your concern elementally. The properties of silver have never been altered, for any changes derive some alloy that is no longer silver. The antelope responds today precisely as his grandfather did a thousand years ago, the eagle reacts as her great-grandmother did when her young are threatened, and man clothed in bison hide or a business-suit tastes the same bitter wash of fear when he’s frightened, knows the same acid-taste of covetousness when he sees someone with something that he feels he must have, be it fire or real estate. There is no revolution in species or ideas, there is only evolution. Man has always acted as he does now, and as long as he survives, he always will act as he does—as Man. If Man evolves into a wiser kinder creature, it will be another species at the top of the tree. It will not be the animal man, it will be the animal that grew from man. There is no change in the tiger and though at some point in biological time he no longer needed his long incisors, with or without his primeval fangs he is still the tiger, stalking the same game that quickened his ancient ancestors in precisely the same way. Fear and hunger move every living thing, from the pin-pricked amoeba to vain acquisitive man. If you wish to speak of humanity, you must first know Man, and if you truly wish to know Man, you must look to yourself. If you can get free enough and are strong enough to get to the heart’s core and then work from there outward, you will have begun, but the journey is a lonely, inward one with dangers more frightening than anything you’ll encounter in the highlands of Tibet or amidst the vast and silent spaceways of the night, for instead of being alien and surprising the instincts and reflexes, those maelstroms are of the too-familiar blood, the narrows and rapids that rise and fall with all of our varied breath.
When you have gone far enough to know absolutely that the journey is one, that there is only the going and the becoming, that there is no destination, that the shore is at best a far vision, then you will come back to what drives you away—your self. Know too that time is the longest distance between two points. If your trip to the moon takes 20 hours, if San Francisco to New Delhi takes 16, don’t think you have gone farther than the kid who’s walked and stolen rides and bled and hidden in boxcars for 4 days to get from Albuquerque to Rapid City. We are all pilgrims.
The cultivation of the self, the endless betterment of yourself, is finally all you’ll be allowed to contribute to the human family. All our art and science and culture is a reflection of that truth. You will do no more for the hungry of the world than what your compassion for your own children plants and flowers in their hearts. It is the most subtle and difficult truth to grasp for someone who feels that he or she bleeds with all who are bleeding, but if you live to see further you will come to understand that you cannot light someone else’s lamp. At best you can present him with the example of your own light, how you feed and nourish it, so that perhaps when he returns to the darkness he will feel the yearning in his own soul for light and he will find what must be done to achieve it. If he comes to you for fire, you will share your fire, and if two others in time come to each of you for fire, you will each share your fire, and so on. The light is passed on and it multiplies only in that fashion. If there is time, only in that way shall mankind know the light. There is no one among us who will light the world. You may use all of your days igniting the empty flares huddled and peopling the darkness, but you will leave only darkness behind you, for the fire is not in the torch, the fire is in the heart, and each heart must learn it for itself or not at all.
If you yearn to give something to all the living out there, you must do so through the excellence of your self. Every hidden lie that you feed, every compromise of your heart’s truth that you acquiesce to, every silent retreat in the face of the intolerable serves to broaden and deepen the slough of mediocrity that threatens the solid high ground of understanding. Refuse to party with and profit from and add to the forces of domination and cruelty and avarice and ignorance and you will leave behind you one tiny chit against them. Remember that your light is so small and fragile a thing that it requires all of your concentration to keep it aglow, like birthday candles in a hurricane. Let nothing turn you away from that flame: neither praise, nor criticism, nor menacing fists, nor loving arms, nor bleeding fingers, nor reaching hands; for in the end it is all you have. Until the human heart has turned away from brutality, until it has so engorged itself upon destruction that any form of cruelty sickens it instinctively, until it becomes the-heart-that-evolved-from-the-heart-of-man, there will be no end to the violent insanity that addicts mankind. The quality of your heart is what you must work on, as I mine, and all of us ours. To postpone the apocalypse is at best a wasted effort. We must want to turn away from the need for that final devastation, to cleanse the blood of the doom that rushes there. For as long as time lasts, we must work to bring about this change one heart at a time, your heart yours, my heart mine, and all of our hearts ours. The only inviolable disarmament will be fashioned when the thought of doing harm to others is no longer thinkable. Any disarmament based on less than such a consensus of feeling is false and ultimately will be broken.
Peace is the dream from out of the tempest, from out of the whirlwind is born the sublime.
© 1986 Joe Henry. As published in The Sun (November 1992).