Swaying between Hope and Despair
Reflections on Fatherly Love and Honouring those who Lost it Early
Horrors come in many shades of black and grey, and the horrors faced by the Native American children in the boarding schools of the United States from the mid-17th to the early 20th centuries were that of the darkest shade of black. The idea was to ‘civilize’ the indigenous children. They were stolen from the cradles of their hopeful childhood and subjected to the center of the world's disdain. The ideal of systematic assimilation, “Kill the Indian, save the man”, was shamelessly preached by Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt's greedy father abandoned his family to get rich quickly in the California Gold Rush. Maybe it is the outcome of having an unreliable father that turned Pratt into such a monster, or maybe he was born that way - cruel and calculative. The evil mastermind behind Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a practical concentration camp to imprison indigenous children and obliterate their cultural identity. These innocent children were kept in overcrowded and unclean spaces festering with diseases. The harrowing circumstances of lack of food, bounty hunting on defiance, and even rape and murder stained the legacy of these so-called schools. The schoolyard sprawls with hundreds of graves of children snatched forcefully from their mother’s bosom and father’s home. They were lost forever to the cycles of abuse by white supremacists. I now understand the grief and anger of my friend Chris La Tray, who translates his anger so eloquently in his work. I only wonder, how can more people not be angry? How can they not grieve irrespective of what culture they are born into? How is such a story so less known outside of the United States? Those children were abused for so many years. How can our hearts not get arrested into spasms when we learn about their sufferings, which those little souls endured like warriors?
It was father’s day a couple of weeks back, I was thinking about the despair of all those fathers who might have never discovered the remains of their child, about the indelible sufferings of men from many tribes who lost the battle of fatherhood to the cruelty of a few. I wonder what it must be for Pratt and his peers to violently sacrilege the sanctity of many indigenous families and then go home to their children. Could they never see through the eyes of their children, the same source to which all the tortured indigenous children were also connected? What must it be like to kill another man's child only to go home and cherish yours? Or did they cherish their children at all? Can a man who harbors such hate, ever be a good father? Isn't compassion towards all who are weaker than self, the cornerstone of fatherhood?
I was thinking about this, while my father is admitted to the hospital after going through a serious episode of a heart attack. I thought of all the ways he had raised me right. I thought of the exercise of love that he practiced every day that made him a remarkable father. I thought about all his sacrifices and selflessness. All the struggles he braved to create a home of safety around us. I was wondering how it would have broken him if we were snatched away from him by some violent twist of fate. I was thinking of all the indigenous children in those dreaded boarding schools and how they must have mourned the lost safety of their father’s home. My despair sets in layers when I think about all the suffering in the world. The fabric of life’s mystery compels me to orient myself to hopes, to look forward and say, maybe all will be okay, and if not, then I will be able to endure. But when death and loss threaten our existence, we have little say in the size of the fear that we encounter.
The reason for the lack of empathy among people for the suffering of others is based on the unawareness of their future. If everyone could understand that no one will be spared the treachery of life, that pain and loss will knock at their door inadvertently at one point in their lives, they would be more humble. As long as we live, we won’t be spared the inevitable game of life with all its delights and defeats. I am convinced that we only run in circles between two touchpoints of hope and despair all our lives. Some stretches are longer than the others, but the eclipses are recurring in nature. As long as human life persists, there is no exception for anyone from traversing in and out of chaos. And if so, we should gather the ability to live with compassion and humor for our battered selves and others as well.
I will leave you, dear reader, with this beloved poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, who wrote it for Margaret Schwarzkopf. Margaret was worried about her mother back in Germany, as the political condition of German Jews slowly started to get disturbing. Shortly after her mother died, she told Frye that she was heartbroken because she could not even stand at her mother’s grave and shed a tear. Frye wrote the poem, in an attempt to respond to Margaret’s grief with the sweet-bitter hopefulness in the indestructible nature of human spirit.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
As for me, with so many uncertain days ahead, I am swaying between hope and despair too. I beckon to hope to keep me afloat and surrender to despair to remember the fragility of life and proactively practice gratitude. I hope faith, even if it wavers, doesn’t fade midst of this darkness. I will write again, dear reader, after the storm passes. Will it spare me the wreckage or will it leave me broken, I know not yet.