There’s a story by Dino Buzzatti that moved me deeply as a teenager. It’s called Humility. It’s about a man who goes to confession in a little parish church. The priest hears him out. That man has only the most minor sins on his mind.
Over the years, the man returns to the priest. Once he says ‘when people call me father, I feel a slight sense of pride’. The priest smiles and gives him absolution. Then the man comes again, a few years later ‘when they call me your eminence, I feel a slight sense a pride,’ and again a few years later ‘when they call me your holiness, I feel a slight sense of pride.’ The priest wonders, why would people poke fun at this simple soul?
Finally, towards the end of his life, the parish priest goes on a visit to the Vatican. There he waits in line to receive a blessing from the pope. When his turn comes, he kneels, and hears a familiar voice tell him: ‘I’ve been coming to you for years. I’m glad you finally came to me.’
At my nearby salon, an old man is chatting with the hairdresser. He’s praising ‘Asians’: ‘You’re hardworking, and you never cause a fuss. I’m like that too.’ The hairdresser nods. ‘My sister and I, we started working in high school, and we just didn’t stop. I think it’s just this ethics from Dad.’ The hairdresser nods. ‘Dad was the man of the family from the age of seven. He had to work hard. He taught us work ethics. You can’t be lazy in this world.’
I wonder meanwhile. Is it wise to take your seven-year-old father as a role model? If you work non-stop, from early years, when do you get time to pause and reflect? And if you don’t, how do you know the work you’re doing is right, useful, or healthy? Do this by necessity, yes – but by choice, and proudly?
My step-mother used to resent me for whatever support I received from my dad. ‘He works so hard to give you a good life’. Other times, she would turn on him. ‘You’re married to your job, it’s the only thing that matters.’ I didn’t fail to note the contradiction: was it all for me, or for the sake of the job itself?
Here’s a paradox I’ve been pondering for a while. Since our systems are broken – I’m talking about our seeming incapacity to prevent general collapse – we cannot trust anyone who is or has been in a position of power. Clearly, they were not able or willing to shift the system enough. Neither can we trust anyone who is not and has never been in power. They were not able, or willing, to reach a position where they could influence the course of things. So, no one is left for us to take as a model or just admire.
A good ancestor no longer needs to be alive. We worship them precisely because they’re willing to disappear. Zombies and vampires, by contrast, make for terrible ancestors. They feed on the living to preserve a semblance of life.
Towards the end of The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow offer a new take on the long story of human innovation. It’s not about the lone hunter making a better spear to help on the mammoth trail. Their praise goes to groups of anonymous women from the Neolithic, who painstakingly selected the best herbs, fruits and potatoes to make the best soup.
When he decided to write a musical piece about Moses, Arnold Schonberg faced an artistic conundrum. How to depict the voice of God talking from the burning bush? He didn’t use a deep bass, but a choir of women.