The Light that Unites
A graphic artist looked up from his work in response to a rapping on the window nearest his work station. Outside stood an unfamiliar man pouring sweat and with a plaintive look on his face.
The artist motioned the man toward the door, met him there and then steered him to the reception desk where the visitor explained that he had written something that he wanted to have published.
The receptionist invited him to have a seat in the lobby and went to retrieve me.
The man appeared fit. He wore a long-sleeved, plaid, button-down shirt with rounded collars and matching three-quarter length pants. Close cousins to pajamas. He clutched a girlish notebook and introduced himself as Marcelo.
“I am not a terrorist,” he began and I was tempted to reply, “Good to know!” but said nothing. The visitor’s manner was serious and his English unpolished.
“I am from Argentina. I was doing construction in Panama City but the work ran out and I am staying at the shelter. I have been in America for seven years. I am a U.S. citizen.”
Acutely and painfully aware of how he might be perceived, the man found it necessary or at least advisable to tell me what he is not. Having done so, he presented me with something that promised to tell me who he is — a seven-stanza poem, neatly handwritten on paper edged in pink.
Sebastian Junger, the writer of “The Perfect Storm” whose life was changed dramatically when he sustained a chainsaw accident and was forced to consider career opportunities other than tree services, has a new book out titled “Tribe.” In it, he posits that people were happier as members of primitive egalitarian collectives than they are as players in highly competitive modern societies. Such close-knit small groups, he has found, continue to form among soldiers in battle zones, uniting men and women who later struggle to re-enter environments where, increasingly it seems, it’s every man or woman for himself or herself.
In hoping for better, Junger is embarking on a hopelessly idealistic notion, some would argue. As a graduate communication student at Florida State University-Panama City, my chief professor and advisor, Dr. Stan Lindsey, was a Burkean, that is, a devotee of the writings of communication theorist, Kenneth Burke.
Lindsey ensured that I never will forget, any more than I will forget the opening lines of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Burke’s definition of man. Clause four — I will spare you the others — holds that humans are hardwired such that we are “goaded by a spirit of hierarchy” that produces systems that result in pervasive guilt: “Those who are Up are guilty of not being Down and those Down are guilty of not being Up.”
(Geez. It is no wonder, then, that growing up in an affluent suburb in the ’60s, I aspired to hippiedom.)
Junger, for his part, departed the safe, cloistered environment in which he grew up and walked off to look for America. Hitchhiking across the West, Junger was at an on-ramp outside Gillette, Wyoming, when he was approached by an itinerant day laborer who had found no work that morning in the mines.
For starters, Junger didn’t know whether to trust the man, whose hair was “matted and wild” and whose union suit was “shiny with filth.” He feared that he was about to be robbed. Here was an encounter not unlike mine with Marcelo the poet.
Instead, the idle laborer opened his lunch box and gave to Junger his bologna sandwich, an apple and bag of potato chips.
“For reasons, I will never know,” Junger writes, “the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe, those people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.”
Marcelo’s poem reveals a tortured, but hopeful and prideful, man seeking to recover lost love and sustenance.
There is nothing final.
In the background, there is hope
That takes hold of you and fills you
With an intense light that rescues
The darkest of beings with the joy
Of knowing that there is a tomorrow
And a way out.
Thank you, Marcelo, for stopping by. You shined a light on me and I like to think I did the same for you. It is that light, Professor Burke, which makes us human.