“It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” Dag Hammarskjold
I have pondered a lot on the Hammarskjold statement. I have let it inform and indict me. In my best moments I live by it, though I realize I am most often not the type to follow the advice.
In Chicago, a city that has been home for 25 years, I have found my Oran. Oran was the hometown of Albert Camus and the setting for La Peste. In this work, it is a city of commercial activity where people live and love often oblivious to any higher calling. As long as there are women to hold and money to be made, Oran is functional, even if laden with racial strife and not altogether beautiful. When the plague strikes the city, its citizens have to live in denial or rise to the occasion. When pushed, most people will do the later.
One of the more fascinating characters in the work is Raymond Rambert, a man who is both selfish and loving. For him Oran is exile. He is separated from Eden and Eve, that is Paris and the woman he calls his wife, though the two are not married. All he can think to do is plan his escape; oblivious to the fact he could be the vector to unleash the plague on his beloved and Paris itself. At this thought I can only cringe for in twenty five years, Chicago has not only been my Oran; it has been my Paris.
Rambert, in realizing La Peste’s narrator Dr. Rieux is also separated from his wife, comes to the calling that he must stay in Exile and fight. He must work for the masses rather than give himself to one. Yet he never betrays his love and the cause he engages he does because it is right rather than noble or beautiful.
This brings me back to Hammarskjold. His words are remarkable because his own life was lived for only the masses. After his death we discovered he was an intensely lonely and spiritual man; his tireless work having come not so much from his desires as from necessity and wanting to see all people live in a better world.
Like Rambert, Hammarskjold labored for the masses and like Rambert he never lost sight of the calling to be with one. The key difference between the two is Hammarskjold believed in God and doing the work of God. In God, Hammarskjold had and has his one. Rambert, not believing in God, places a woman in this place. Even those who believe in God will recognize the power of this. In La Peste, an elderly and devout woman tells Rambert he must go back to his “wife” or else there is nothing for him. She recognizes if one cannot be with God, they must at least find their solace in being with God’s image.
I remember once being in church and seeing someone I had only seen in pictures. He was there with one of my friends and I am certain there because of her. Just an hour before as I was walking to the service I looked up and saw the flag of Alaska on a back porch. This was peculiar, for there is little reason anyone in Chicago should have this flag, but it was appropriate. On the ceiling of Immanuel’s Magi Chapel is the blue and gold image of the Big Dipper and North Star, which also graces the Alaskan flag. At Immanuel, that star is equated with Christ, who for Hammarskjold was his one.
I think of my friend, who I would sit with on holy days and wish that such a gentle person would have someone else to sit with and rejoicing when she met that person who for so long I knew of, though never saw until that day. Perhaps my friend is his true north leading him to that which is a greater companionship. This would be a nice for my friend cannot really be the always constant North Star. She is too small for this. In spite of my poetry on the matter, we are all too small for this. All she or anyone else can be is the one who points us to the real constant in whose image we are made.
I think of Hammarskjold. I have not read Markings, but I think his words about giving oneself over to one must be about human companionship, though in the absence of this, I know he knew that which is greater companionship. With that I ask myself of the better way. Is loneliness a thing that can and should be endured if it leads to greater benefit for the many? Is it selfish to want companionship when the needs of the many may be lost? I then realize this is not a utilitarian matter. People who know God’s justice are able to endure and even find joy in their loneliness and people who are in companionship tend to be kind. Hammarskjold was joyful amidst his loneliness and even the selfish Rambert came to be kind. My friend….well she is joyful and kind.
From a glass box 1353 feet in the air and facing north I look over my Oran and my Paris, where I can see those places I have been joyful and alone (but not really alone) and those places that have seen me with stars and constellations, which makes me kind. I have been like Hammarskjold and like Rambert. If I stare hard enough I can make out the geography of the streets where I have walked alone thinking if nothing else I can be there for others and I can see too the places where in companionship I have not always thought of being there for others, but have found myself in that place of kindness where it just happens. I do not know which is the better way. Both are good and both point not only to the north that is my geography, but also to that true north where everyone finds their greatest companionship.