March 19, 2011
Sometimes, my mind wanders. I don’t think it’s just because I’m getting old, but I can’t be sure. The other evening, while I watched the news from Japan, it happened again.
It was a video of an elderly Japanese woman, bent nearly in half, a large bundle of some kind fastened to her lower back. Alone under a gray sky, she shuffled along what seemed an unending snow-covered debris field with a fragile determination to get … somewhere. At one point, about half way across the video camera’s field of vision, she turned her head toward the camera without stopping, then, looking back down, she continued on her way as if being filmed by the camera mattered not one whit.
Immediately, my mind wandered. I walked beside her through the snow, bent to her level. “Who are you?” I asked. “Where are you going? Was this your village; is your family buried under this debris? What can I do to help?” And, finally, the question I most often fear to ask or have answered, “Does anyone know you’re here?”
Of course, the video photographer knew she was there. Did he stop, after filming, and offer her help, or do journalists and photographers – like Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise – have a Prime Directive that says, Do not interfere? Does it matter? He or she took the video, or one like it, that millions saw on the news, that moved us to send help because we knew she or others like her – like us – were there. Intentionally or not, he breeched the Prime Directive.
Throughout our history as a species, the rich and powerful have left memorials to themselves – the Sphinx, the Pyramids, the Arch of Titus, the medieval cathedrals, the Arc d’ Triumph, the buildings and statues that proclaim their presence and their power. They cry loudly, WE were here.
The rest of us? Not so much. Most of our memorials speak to the tragedies or small triumphs of our collective lives – the cave paintings, the bog man and the ice man, the ash encased bodies from Pompeii, the concentration camps, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. These memorials whisper, we were here, too. This has been the way for most of our history.
Yet, it seems to me in my musings, there is a final trembling in the force. The ground shakes beneath the worldwide financial empire; the edges crumble. The Empire no longer ends its wars in clear-cut victories. Technology betrays us with ever more frequency. Everywhere a rising anger grows among those left behind in this final rush for power and even the earth, robbed of its resources and energy to build those great monuments to greed, betrays them with alarming frequency, leaving us to wonder what will remain when this shake out is over.
Only one of two things, I suspect, for there is too little energy left, now, for both. Either the monument makers, in a mad scramble to retain their lost glory, will destroy what remains, or the rest of us will crawl out from the rubble of Ozymandias and step up beside each other, saying, “Who are you? Where are you going? Was this your village; is your family buried under this debris? What can I do to help?” In the end, for most of us this has always been the answer to that dreaded question – “Yes, I know you are here; I am here, too.”