Ways of Seeing by Cheryl Mitchell: London visit gives new perspective
As I write this column we are staying in London for the opening of HadesTown, our daughter’s folk opera. The play is a revisitation of the Orpheus and Eurydice Myth that explores a world gone wrong as a result of greed, fear and dehumanizing the “other.” Although written more than a decade ago, the play is eerily resonant with current day America. It’s signature song “Why we build the wall’” echoes the controversy here over Brexit.
Today is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, or Remembrance Sunday as the English call it. The word “inconceivable” keeps echoing through the day in sermons, in speeches and in news articles:
The inconceivable horror of the First World War — where soldiers armed for old-fashioned combat ran up against mechanized warfare.
The inconceivable waste of human life — millions dying at the time or in the aftermath.
The inconceivable destruction of farms and cities — ruining croplands and destroying livelihoods.
The inconceivable loss experienced by families and communities — in many cases whole sports teams, or whole groups of friends from one neighborhood signed up together and never returned.
And always the inconceivable fact that we have not yet learned better ways to solve problems.
At one meeting we attended a woman turned to us and said: “Well at least there is a little ray of hope for your country again.” The English people we met were obviously less engrossed with American politics than we were, but they seemed to have a much clearer view of how events in one nation would affect the wider world. She believed the changes in the U.S. House of Representatives were a sign that democracy was again taking hold.
It is inspiring to be visiting in a society which has experienced so much destruction, yet people are working hard to live together without fear, with a joy and openness to difference that is rare back home. We felt an immense sense of safety, even walking alone in the wee hours of the night (the theatre world is semi-nocturnal) and could understand why people said it was inconceivable that America has allowed the gun violence to go on for so long.
We noticed the careful attention to providing access for people with disabilities and were not surprised when people said it was inconceivable that in America you would need to request in advance if you needed an accommodation.
We delighted in the variety of languages, appearances, and attitudes of people we met, and seeing the obvious respect in which people held one another; and it was not surprising that people said it was inconceivable that people “as nice as you Americans” could have elected as our president someone who inflames racial and ethnic hatred.
And we were grateful for the obvious questioning that is also encouraged and accepted. People seemed honestly trying to come to grips with the violence in their own hearts and the history of violence in their nation; they were troubled that attempts to support and care for all equitably had not come to fruition. They were worried that there is still no clear path toward sustainable peace.
My experience here in London suggests something more fundamental is at the base of our inability or unwillingness to care for one another in America. I am grateful that our country has never experienced the inconceivable devastation other nations have endured. But perhaps that universal experience of grief and loss has made human connections more important. I pray that we might find a way forward to the day when we Americans say:
It is inconceivable that people should be without health care.
It is inconceivable that young children are not given the best possible start in life.
It is inconceivable that families do not receive the help they need to lead happy, productive lives.
It is inconceivable that we aren’t teaching our children to value one another.
Until that day, it is good that there is an emerging ray of hope, as the woman said this morning. Let us do what we can to fan it into a full-blown vision of a world that works for all of us.
Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work. She can be reached at [email protected]