Emily S. Whitten: Looking With the Heart
“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…
They don’t find it,” I answered.
And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”
Of course,” I answered.
And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”
The Little Prince has always been a favorite of mine. It was the first book I read in French, and I still prefer to read it in French, despite being a little rusty on the language. It is also particularly appropriate to quote as I think about what happened in Paris last week. Not only did the book engender in me a fondness for the French language and culture, but it also contains an important message that I feel we should remember in times like this.
There are a lot of reactions to what happened in Paris. Appropriately, there is mourning, and outrage, and sympathy for Paris and for those who have lost people (and I extend my sympathy to them as well). As appropriately, but also somewhat obscenely in the face of such destruction, there is posturing and arguing and debating about the root causes of the attack and the best responses.
People are blaming political policies, organized religion, and entire cultures for what happened. And while in the smaller sense we know who particularly has claimed responsibility for the attacks, in the larger sense, these people are not all wrong. There may be elements of all of these things and more at work in what happened; and even though it sometimes seems to me that ego is as much a part of why certain people step into the limelight to try to address the impetus for the attacks and the best way to respond to them and try to prevent them from happening again, of course it is also necessary to do so.
Today, I don’t feel like doing so. What I feel like doing is reminding myself and everyone, instead, of the importance of looking with the heart. There is so much hatred, violence, and destruction out there; and if we let it, it can consume us. But there is also a lot of beauty to be found; in individual people, in nature, in art and our creations.
I think it can be very easy to lose sight of this, in the face of such sadness and destruction and hate, and of devastating events with global impact; but it is imperative that we remember. Because while geopolitical issues, and religious disagreements, and what-have-you are very important and shape our world; so too are all of the individual lives we touch each day and the care we take over our own actions. These things are what make us who we are, and what make us, in a way, more human. And while I can’t always control what angry, hateful, misguided people choose to do, I can at least control my own reactions and state of mind.
There are a couple of concurrent interesting themes that run through another favorite book of mine, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. In it, it is shown how a character named Vorbis is evil not only because of what he does, but because of what he makes other people into – in other words, how he influences them to start thinking and behaving like him, in part through his assumptions about what all of humanity is like. At the same time, the protagonist Brutha influences The Great God Om (in Discworld books the gods are influenced by their interactions with humans) to realize that humanity can’t only be looked on as a whole, because each individual life is as important as all of them. Or, to quote from one memorable scene in which Om storms Dunmanifestin, the home of the gods, and in the process converses with a somewhat lesser god who is still learning about the value of numbers (P’Tang-P’Tang, who looks like a very large newt and has a whole fifty-one followers):
“Is one less than fifty-one?” said P’Tang-P’Tang.
“It’s the same,” said Om, firmly.
“But you have thousands,” said the Newt God. “You fight for thousands.”
“I think,” [Om] said, “I think, if you want thousands, you have to fight for one.”
I can’t imagine the mindset of people who think that a point being made by killing random people is more important than the people themselves. But I can see that these are clearly people like Vorbis, who have lost sight of the importance of the individual, and that in order for us not to be turned into something like them in our reaction to their heinous actions, we need to remember it. We need to remember that each person out there is unique, and is someone’s parent, child, lover, or friend; and that our care for others is what makes us human. After all, as the little prince observed, “To forget a friend is sad. Not everyone has had a friend. And if I forget him, I may become like the grown−ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures…”
We are so lucky to live in a world of endless variety, and the most endless of that variety is the sea of humanity we swim in. I can’t fully comprehend why some people choose to disregard this and instead work to destroy it. All I can choose is to recognize it myself, and act accordingly. Because even in a world where there are terrible people; or even annoying people, or people you might not choose to interact with on a daily basis, the alternative to being surrounded by this sea of diversity is frightening. Again, a concept Pratchett conveys so well in Small Gods, when Vorbis has died, and is alone with Death on the black sand of the vast desert that he must cross to reach judgment:
“Don’t leave me! It’s so empty!”
Death looked around at the endless desert. He snapped his fingers and a large white horse trotted up.
I SEE A HUNDRED THOUSAND PEOPLE, he said, swinging himself up into the saddle.
HERE. WITH YOU.
“I can’t see them!”
Death gathered up the reins.
NEVERTHELESS, he said. His horse trotted forward a few steps.
“I don’t understand!” screamed Vorbis.
Death paused. YOU HAVE PERHAPS HEARD THE PHRASE, he said, THAT HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE?
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG.”
Indeed, what would we be without everyone else out there? We should remember how lucky we are to be a part of humanity, and act accordingly, and with the remembrance that everything we do is our choice, and changes our world in ways that can’t be undone. Because after all, as Terry (through The Great God Om) once said:
“I. This is Not a Game.
II. Here and Now, You are Alive.”
My sincerest condolences and sympathy to everyone who has been affected by the Paris tragedy, which is all of us; and let us always remember that this life is not a game, and that each choice we make matters, and that each person in our world is very, very important.
Until next time, Servo Lectio.