Saints and monsters

It was with the greatest pleasure that I spent most of the first two days of December in my favourite European City, Freiburg im Breisgau, the “capital” of southwestern Germany´s Black Forest.

I have in two previous posts briefly touched upon my last visit to Freiburg (Sign of the Times / Victims of the Machine) and I realise that, unlike former posts of walks and visits in Switzerland, England and Sardinia, I have not gone into detail about how and why Freiburg holds such a very special place in my heart and soul.

Bear with me, gentle readers, I will correct this glaring omission very soon.

I will say this though – part of the spell that is Freiburg is the lingering presence of old friends who remain there.

Some friends are closer to me than family.

Others are friends because their characters fascinate me.

What I love about my closest friends, be they in Freiburg or not, is not just a commonality of experience that we have shared or continue to share.

Rather it is in discussions with them that I learn so much from them.

Sometimes wisdom comes from the beauty of their intelligent minds.

Sometimes wisdom comes from the tapestry of their life experiences.

It is a rare and precious thing to have discussions with them.

For I feel that whatever physical setting we may find ourselves in, whether tavern or cafe, sitting on the banks of the Dreisam River or simply strolling through town,  my mind feels like I am instead in ancient Greece strolling through the groves of Academe like old philosophers, old “lovers of wisdom”, not so much smarter for the shared experience but instead more inspired and hungry to once again resume life in all its richest fullness.

In Freiburg two gentlemen, my friends since the beginning of this Millennium, inspire, delight, enlighten and entertain me.

Every visit to Freiburg, and I try to visit twice a year, I make it a point to see these two rough diamonds in my crown of Life: Reggie and Rolf.

Both Americans (No one is perfect!) bring this Canuck endless smiles and generate the deepest feelings of respect and gratitude for their continual presence in my life.

Reggie, the Philadelphia “Preacher of the Gospel of Hip Hop”, the ebony to my ivory, a fellow English teacher who has also wandered the globe and surprisingly found himself settled in Europe longer than he had ever imagined, is a pal, a brother in every way except genetics.

There has never been a conversation where he has not challenged me to view the world from perspectives other than my own set notions, and I love him for this!

A few hours with him and my mind is on fire!

As we often do, we talk about world politics and America´s role in the world, our relationships with our “women folk”, our common teaching experiences, our North American perspectives on living in Europe, our travels past and planned and those strange phenomena called Life and Love.

As a Canadian I find there is much about the American experience that, despite months-long periods of independent travel in the States, I have great difficulty understanding: views on guns, socialism, health care, military actions, international relations, religion, racism, just to name a few.

And Reggie, bless the man for trying, does his damnedness to educate me!

I think one way I differ from many North Americans (though I find Americans more prone to the following mindset than Canadians or Mexicans I have known) is that I don´t have the deep-set belief that most folks (or at least the folks you don´t know well) are inherantly evil.

Granted the ex-pat Americans I have met who have settled in countries where I too as an ex-pat have lived (South Korea, England, Germany, Switzerland) are generally exceptions to this mindset, there seems to be among the vast majority of Americans the idea that life is a bottomless vale of danger wherein one is surrounded by enemies on all sides and even allies cannot be completely trusted.

And as karmic consequence this message of distrust and paranoia they send to the world manifests itself as distrust and paranoia from the world and amongst themselves.

This seems to be a simple explanation for the power of the conservative right in America, the massive over-proliferation of guns in America, the tragic amounts of shootings and violence on American streets and campuses,  and the ridiculous amounts of revenue invested in the US military.

As a Canadian who has done a wee bit of world wandering in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, it has been my experience that most people regardless of faith, colour, political creed or religious belief are decent, often generous, people who simply desire to live in peace and raise their loved ones with affection and compassion.

Don´t misunderstand me.

I am not suggesting that everyone everywhere is acting saint-like at all times, for each and everyone of us is essentially human and prone to mistakes and temptations where individual selfishness sometimes overwhelms common sense and compassion for others.

But in my own, albeit limited, experience, I have found that most people whoever wherever they may be are inherantly good.

Every population does produce its monsters but they are monsters because they differ so much from the rest of the population.

Monsters are the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.

I like the way American author John Steinbeck in East of Eden describes this:

“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. 

Some you can see, misshapen and horrible…

They are accidents and no one´s fault…

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?

The face and the body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. 

As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience…

You must never forget that a monster is only a variation…”

Reggie, Rolf and myself have had our moments of less-than-exemplary behaviour, as have had most of us,  for just as humanity has produced few monsters, it has also produced few saints.

But I stand by my conviction that the basic instincts of humanity are more often drawn towards love and compassion rather than hate and fear.

Only those whose lives have had the lack of experience of love and compassion are they drawn towards violence, hate and paranoia.

I return to John Steinbeck´s East of Eden:

“Do you remember when you read us the 16 verses of the 4th chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?…

Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word…

The more I thought about the story (of Cain and Abel), the more profound it became to me…

The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you call sin ignorance.

The King James translation makes a promise in “Thou shalt”, meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel“Thou mayest” – that gives a choice.

Thou mayest rule over sin.

It might be the most important word in the world, that says the way is open, that throws it right back on a man…

…”Thou mayest” makes a man great, gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. 

He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

The instinct and the potential for good is in all of us.