From A Brave and Startling Truth by Maya Angelou

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe………

Over the weekend I watched 1917, starring George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, directed by Sam Mendes.  From the beginning of the film we are immersed into the horrors and stench of the trenches and battlefields of northern France as we follow two British soldiers venture into enemy territory in search of a brother and in order to deliver a message to their fellow troops to halt a potentially disastrous attack against the Germans in 1917. They move breathlessly through chaos from one unchartered terrain to another. They move against, exhaustion and time in a ‘hell created on earth’ terrain of a body strewn carnage, horse carcasses, vultures and rodents feasting on the dead, burnt down villages and uprooted trees, collapsing tunnels, barbed wire, and lots of mud and filth.

Everywhere they go life has been violently interfered with and they are faced with scenes of destruction –  a cherry tree orchard destroyed. a bombed out church, a bridge that has collapsed,  deserted houses. Domesticity and the rhythms of daily life and nature have been violently disrupted. The farm house they stop for a while has been looted, a doll is lying in the soot, the milk is still fresh in the pale, one lonely cow has escaped massacre, an enemy helicopter crashes into the yard. They rescue the enemy soldier from the flames, who then stabs the soldier tending him. The youth’s last words are of love for his family and mother.

Watching the film one wonders how humans can create such devastation and chaos while at the same time be capable of deep caring, compassion, altruism, courage and love till the end. There are many tripwire moments when we the viewers are startled within the safety of our seats, but in the more low key moments of the film we witness love, compassion and altruism in the bleakest of circumstances. In this Homeric odyssey the surviving soldier moves alone in the night through a purgatorial world. When he seeks shelter from the enemy in a basement he meets the only survivor, a young woman who has gotten attached to a stranger’s baby and is trying to keep it alive in the midst of terror and lack. This war film, which does not focus on battle scenes, but rather on the aftermath and the cost in human lives, the waste, the destruction of the natural world, the exhaustion, the grief and loss of hope, made me think that the opposite of war is not peace, but love and compassion, There is an interlude where a soldier sings a hauntingly beautiful song the Wayfaring Stranger. At that point in the midst of chaos and uncertainty we experience peace, a sense of communion and a glimpse of what could be.

Maya Angelou’s poem A Brave and Startling Truth comes to mind:

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness

The film has at some level influenced the ink drawing posted here, but at a deeper level I already carried these images within my psyche. We are exposed to discourse, narratives, images and films about wars and conflict. We only need to look at the history of our own country to get an idea of how much historical violence, wounding and unspoken suffering has occurred over the centuries. If we then consider how this cultural and collective trauma is tightly interconnected with our individual and familial legacies we can understand that the repercussions of this experience manifest as residual energy in our bodies, as symptoms, as familial and societal narratives and practices, which are passed down through generations until people decide to acknowledge, break the silence and heal. One of the speakers of the Online Collective Trauma summit, Dr Scilla Elworthy, believes that personal and collective trauma drives war and that the cycle of violence in many places where there is conflict will only stop through personal and collective acknowledgement, integration of events and healing.

Read the whole poem here


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