"The Answer," by Robinson Jeffers

Then what is the answer?—Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know the great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history...for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.


A commenter posted this on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog today in response to a thread about Osama bin Laden. I was here in New York on 9/11; I watched from a terrace at Scholastic as the towers burned. And yet as satisfied as I felt to hear that Osama had died, to know that justice had come round in the world in this one small way, an eye for thousands of eyes, I felt disquieted also about raucously declaring victory when we threw away so much chasing that justice over the past decade . . . American, Iraqi, and Afghan lives; fathers and mothers and children and siblings, even when their bodies returned from the wars; the trillion dollars spent on these missions overseas, when a full quarter of American children sleep in hunger.

So this poem spoke to me in that larger sense: that we cannot know the larger answers, the ends, what is right in the long arc of history. We can know only our own small answers to the questions, and try to see clearly our own smallness, to keep ourselves and those around us whole. I think often about a quote from Rabbi Sheila Peltz, who went to Auschwitz and said, "I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place." As justice is a restoration of balance, of wholeness, again, I am glad today for that. But we should be careful about declaring any more.