Candles in the dark

Candles in the dark

EDITOR’S NOTE: The below note came to us from Cathy Grimes, a Nieman Fellow alum and faithful Storyboard reader. She said it was prompted by recent posts in which other writers wrote of being inspired by everything from “Hamilton” to thank-you notes to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” On this, the last day of the Christian season known as Advent and on the eve of Christmas, it seemed fitting to share. 

I recently came across a meditation by John Paul Lederach, a Notre Dame emeritus professor and scholar at Eastern Mennonite University who is known globally for his work in conflict resolution and mediation. He wrote a deeply thoughtful book called “The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace” that focuses on finding ways for people with opposing views to reach across their divides and find the humanity in those they see as enemies. He works a great deal with war-torn communities.

He recently wrote an Advent Manifesto for “On Being” that struck me both because of its framework and because of the way Lederach shares thoughts within that framework. He borrows the form — 100 short paragraphs, poems, sentences, even fragments — from 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His thoughts are separate yet build on one another, with common threads that slip below the surface, then reappear. Some of his sentences glow.

Here’s what he wrote for the third element in his manifesto:

For a time, I required my students to write a Wittgensteinian essay: Start with one idea. Notice where it goes. Number each idea. Keep them short. Don’t worry if you hop around. Read and play with what emerges. It may take a while to understand what you are trying to say. To yourself.

This made me think of all the times I would worry a story until I could figure out what it wanted to be, and how to build and tell it in the best possible way.

I’m always intrigued when someone does something that captures attention with imagery and active reaction, and Lederach does so in sections 15-19. What strikes me most here is the unexpected switch from voice to vision in section 15. Until these passages, the narrator’s voice has been dominant. He has quoted scripture, shared thoughts, offered snippets of poetry. But in section 15, he switches from telling to showing and paints an image:

I turned off all sound and just observed faces. With rare exception, I saw raw suffering.

It is not an image one thinks of in association with political news reports, but it is easy to “see” in the context of his words. It is an image with staying power. I find myself examining faces, looking for the suffering Lederach sees in almost every face.

In section 18, he offers another stark, graphic image of what he observes with the sound turned off, stated in a short, active sentence, and then shares his physical reaction to all of this:

I watched America devour herself.

My soul felt battered. My feet quagmired. My hands could not write.

The last line of section 19, with yet another strong image, is perhaps the most powerful:

A sad heart climbed into my throat looking for refuge.

I find myself coming back to that image and wondering at the idea of one’s throat as refuge for one’s heart. I also love the use of quagmire as a verb.

In the midst of this threaded meditation, he reflects on his wife’s Parkinson’s Disease, and this sentence stood out, simple, stark, and filled with grace:

We rarely notice small things until they have disappeared.

There are so many sentences and snippets in this 100-piece manifesto that resonate, perhaps more deeply so at this time of year. Or maybe just in these conflicted times. His Christian faith flows through the piece, but I think anyone can read this and find something to take away as a study in thought and writing.

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