In an effort to cope with the anger and fear aroused in me by the election, I have turned to Holocaust literature for models of strength in crisis. I’m now reading the memoir And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman who was blinded in a schoolyard accident when he was seven years old, yet went on to become a hero of the French Resistance during World War II. The philosopher Jacob Needleman calls this book “a stunning revelation of human courage and love in the midst of implacable human evil.”
Lusseyran recounts how, after the surgery that severed both his optic nerves, he was still able to see an inner light, which I would say somehow suffused his being and allowed him to navigate through the exterior world in a way that was mysterious yet also reliable. Lusseyran quickly discovered that negative emotions impinged on the inner light and destroyed its reliability.
Still, there were times when the light faded, almost to the point of disappearing. It happened every time I was afraid.
If, instead of letting myself be carried along by confidence and throwing myself into things, I hesitated, calculated, thought about the wall, the half-open door, the key in the lock; if I said to myself that all these things were hostile and about to strike or scratch, then without exception I hit or wounded myself. The only easy way to move around the house, the garden or the beach was by not thinking about it at all, or thinking as little as possible. Then I moved between obstacles the way they say bats do. What the loss of my eyes had not accomplished was brought about by fear. It made me blind.
Anger and impatience had the same effect, throwing everything into confusion. The minute before I knew just where everything in the room was, but if I got angry, things got angrier than I. They went and hid in the most unlikely corners, mixed themselves up, turned turtle, muttered like crazy men and looked wild.…. I could no longer afford to be jealous or unfriendly, because, as soon as I was, a bandage came down over my eyes, and I was bound hand and foot and cast aside.
It is not for me to tell anyone how to be a good and faithful Ecozoan in this tumultuous new era that has forced itself upon us. Nor am I trying to counsel inclusive engagement with “those who support this new populist wave,” to quote Herman Greene, or even take issue with Herman’s declaration of war. But I do want to point out that as soon as we allow ourselves to be ruled by any kind of negative emotion, we are in danger of losing the light (i.e., the field of energy) which binds us into the cosmos. If we insist on perceiving the world and its inhabitants as hostile, we are in danger of losing our intimate connection to that web of life, the flourishing of which is our goal. We literally and figuratively lose sight of the meadow, to use Thomas Berry’s icon—it will quickly “turn turtle” and disappear from view.
I am a poet, not a philosopher. I am (as Poetry magazine editor Don Share says in a post-election interview in The Atlantic) “a canary in the mine.” This canary fails to understand any ‘theology of nature’ that does not take into account Gaia’s own command, as embodied so clearly in Lusseyran’s experience: to remain part of and never separate from the whole. For, as the blind man said after his year in Buchenwald, “There is no difference between the light within and the light without.”