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White Beard

November 16, 2016

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White Beard
A tale of bewilderment

He wasn’t old yet, at least not as far as he knew. By the newly accepted standards of aging, he was very much the equivalent of what a man 10 years younger than him would have been 10 years ago. This reckoning would put him in the prime of his life, in the treasured demographic of fully-fledged-but not-yet-middle-aged citizens of the Republic. But that morning he had woken up and realized that the night before, when the Nation had made its choice, his hair had, in more spots than ever, surrendered its applesauce-blonde and gone silver. The Choice, the Choice! He had been hoping to wake up, Scrooge-like, to the realization that the nightmare really had been only a nightmare, to check the papers, read the news of a different choice, and run to the window wishing all and sundry a happy November 9. Alas, he didn’t have to fetch the paper to strike down his hopes; that silver already told the story: Such hair is not the product of night visions. Only time can do that—and last night, those hours bent over the coffee table, occasionally sipping at a glass of lukewarm water, watching the insanely energetic people on television color in a map until well past three in the morning, had felt like a decade. Today he would have to teach. He wondered if those faces, with all of their 22 years of compressed wisdom acquired in a country forever unraveling and re-raveling itself, would have aged as well. Could the young, too, have acquired streaks of silver? Would they be ready to fight, rejoice, weep, or simply walk through to the end of this day, worn sneakers on gray concrete, and into the next, because they had choices of their own and could not be dismayed or derailed by the Choice.

He decided to talk not about the Choice itself, but rather about the way the insanely energetic people on television had presented, analyzed and autopsied the Choice. The Choice, after all, was a story, and these people were the Storytellers. Talking about the Storytellers rather than the story would provide a buffer zone between himself and the students and the Choice, a sort of ethereal cushion between the political and the personal, between the night and the morning, between the tale and the terrifying possibility that it was true. In any case, he decided, we can learn a lot about a poisoned well by discussing how we had learned of the poisoning: What words had the Storytellers used to describe the well? Did they name the contents of the noxious flask, or leave them to our imaginations? Did they say how exactly the poison had been brought to the well? Were there any eyewitnesses? Did the bedtime story end, as all bedtime stories must, with a soothing goodnight?  

The students had not gone gray, but there was something ashy about the eyes, as if they had been staring too long into a fire. He tried to look young. He played at irony. His first words were, Good Morning!, admitting that something new had come along and poking fun at the absurd possibility of its goodness. The students were neither in the mood for morning nor for any implication of goodness, ironic or not. And yet they spoke. In general, they agreed that, after hearing the story of the poisoning of the well from the Storytellers, that the Storytellers themselves bore a stain of guilt that even the continued application of insane energy to no particular end (the task to which the Storytellers were, everyone agreed, most well-suited) would not cleanse. The tellers had told, the hearers had heard. Each type of teller had its own type of hearer. And once something had been heard, it could not be unheard; on the contrary, it was spoken and respoken upon the little personal screens the hearers liked to hold so that they could more often hear what they wanted to hear and denounce what they did not want to hear.

The gray-haired man—for by now he had gone entirely gray—stood before the students and pointed out where they were correct about the Storytellers and where, perhaps, they were being uncharitable, but he understood that this was not a time of charity, neither for the Storytellers, nor for anyone else. Those ashy eyes bored into him, swollen on the lower lids, perhaps, he thought, from tears, or perhaps from simple exhaustion with the whole ballyhooed and seemingly much-overrated Exercising of the Choice. Do you know, the eyes asked, how we feel? He replied to the silent question by asking the students, again, what they thought. They thought the numbers had been wrong all along and did not understand why. Why had the Storytellers been telling stories about numbers that were wrong? He asked them if perhaps the blame lay not with the Storytellers but with the Mathematicians, who had for more than a decade been encouraging a purge of the Storytellers for the crime of inexact science. He did not receive an answer, because they found the question both bewildering and uninteresting, and instead suggested that the well had been poisoned by the Other People.

The old man—for now the gray-haired man was old—was uncertain at first who the Other People were, but then he looked upon the eyes, no longer ashen but fierce, and understood that if he were to ask them it would be regarded as a trick question, since the definition of the Other People is different for every person. Still, the students at least shared a consensus that the Other People were clearly at fault, and it appeared that a certain peace might preside in the room, which, by the way, was terraced like a theater, with 30 young people in 30 chairs looking down at the old man as if he were a theatrical curiosity, like a clown in tatters or an elephant with a bow tied around its trunk or, more ancient still, Cro-Magnon Man attempting to explain the use of fire to an audience that had already discovered nuclear fusion.

Then a student took the audience away from him with the outrageous claim that the secondary Storytellers, those Hearers with their little screens, had been the true poisoners of the well, and that the things they had typed into their little screens might be stirring up an unrealistic amount of despair and that perhaps, just for the moment, until the next moment came with news of its own, the ashen eyes should be a little less ashen. If the ancient man, now tottering on a cane that had materialized as if from nowhere, had been given an opportunity, he would have explained to the student that from his centuries of experience the one thing one never must say to a person who believes himself freshly poisoned is that perhaps the person is not poisoned after all, and may indeed make a full recovery. In the moment of poisoning, we all have a sacred right to fully embrace our misfortune and impending doom. You do not tell a drowning man that he is not drowning until well after he has been saved and is safely on the shore.

But the old man could not think fast enough to make his case; age brings wisdom but slows one’s pace. It was, in short, too late. He watched with a sort of curious detachment as 29 pairs of ashen eyes turned to the student who had spoken and, without a word, melted her until she was no longer there. He had not known that ashen eyes had such power, but was glad to know it now. Such knowledge can help one avoid all manner of unpleasantness. By the time the puddle evaporated, he had gathered his thoughts, located his voice, and dusted off his powers of human agency: We cannot, he said, go on with all of this melting. It is no better than the poisoning of wells, though the poisoning of the well preceded the melting and therefore bears a causal responsibility for both sins. We must hear one another, weigh what the other says, and perhaps even what the other does, before determining whether the other is to blame.

A pair of eyes looked up at him from the front row, more ashen than ever. He fully expected the melting to commence. Instead, there were words: Don’t you understand, said the voice beneath the eyes, You are the Other. You cannot be me, and furthermore, you have no devices by which to understand me. You may ask us to speak of these things, and we are quite willing to speak. But you also ask us to hear, and I will say to you that you cannot possibly grasp what it means for us to hear these things. If you could invite us to speak without hearing, perhaps we would feel safe at last. But you have proven yourself unable to issue such an invitation. The man, who had dug himself a small plot at the front of the room, six feet long and six feet deep, said that he could not imagine the gift of speech without the secondary gift of hearing. There was, suddenly, laughter in the ashen eyes. The dying man understood that he had reached a sort of philosophical watershed: Complete Incomprehension. He felt the spirit rising from his body.

The room emptied around him and students from the next class began to enter. He photographed the whiteboard as a way of preserving a sign of his own existence, then erased the whiteboard, then, feeling suddenly liberated, filled in the grave he had dug without first crawling in. The students from the next class asked what he was doing. A demonstration, he said. Scientific. That night he went home and did not sleep. He had the peculiar longing to say something entirely relevant to the moment, about the possibility that if each one of us is an Other, then to hold all others as blameworthy is to bestow mutual guilt upon the entire world. He drank one glass of water, then another, pecking at his keyboard and occasionally whisking his long white beard away from the space bar. He felt as if he would float off, buoyed by his own lightheadedness upon a yellow sea. If the entire world were guilty, one is left with three options: First, that the world is our enemy; Second, that the world must be forgiven; Third, that world is so complicated that we must undertake the exhausting task of examining all that guilt and determining who, in this sinful golden sea, we are still willing to swim beside. He typed until morning, moved almost to tears by the beautiful madness biblical old age had brought upon him, assuming a mantle of authority, almost insufferable, that he could not have imagined before he’d gone gray. He mapped out Seven Principles, each growing like oak, he believed, from the soil of the last:

On Alliance and Opposition

  1. On goodwill. I have not been asked to give these words, but they are all I have to give. As I speak them, I am driven not by the need to make amends for our shared and often shattered past but by the imperative of our continued common humanity—the requirement that we live peaceably alongside one another with mutual respect and, wherever possible, friendship. I am driven by the belief that we are not disposable. I am driven by a belief in each of your sanctity, and in a desire for your survival and success.
  1. On patience. For those who take seriously the schoolhouse invocation of liberty and justice for all, who accept as self-evident that all men are created equal, and who value the constitutional promise to promote the general welfare, the days ahead may offer little solace. But they offer strength if we are willing to seek it. They may provide small resources for our patience, but gather what you can and shepherd it wisely. Your passion will be your sword, but your patience is your shield. You will need both.
  1. On allies. You will need allies. These allies may not know your codes; there will be misinterpretations and poor translations; you and they will stumble over clumsily laid stones on the path you pave toward one another. Your allies are bound on occasion to displease you in word and deed, even when they share your goals. Develop an ear for their language; they will do the same for you. Explain your views and listen to theirs. Expect respect and grant the same.
  1. On maintaining alliances. Among your allies, be slow to take offense and quick to identify and expand common ground. Be incisive but civil in internal debate. Nourish shared core values. Do the hard work of working together. Hone your capacity for respectful disagreement and your instinct for healthy concord.
  1. On expanding alliances. Turn allies into friends and, when possible, enemies into allies. Recognize that they, too, have a story. They, too, know challenge, misfortune, limitation, frustration, pain, difference and joy. Evaluate their words, their actions, their intent, their hearts, the sincerity of their diplomatic missions. Be alert to the ways in which their hopes harmonize with your own. Be willing where possible to harmonize your hopes with theirs.
  1. On openness. Be fierce and determined and open. The open mind recognizes possibility, identifies opportunity, sees victory in dim light and spots the pale gleam of peace beyond the fretful bend.
  1. On communication. This battle will be long. There is no victory without communication, and no communication without listening. Learn, grow, and day by day, year by year, act. Seed the fields with justice and mercy, and when the harvest comes take your land and tend it wisely, with malice toward none and charity toward all.

When he had finished writing, he printed the words upon a piece of paper and folded the piece of paper into his portfolio and took his overcoat and his cane and went to the university. There he stood in the theater before the students. He took out the piece of paper and unfolded it and flattened it on the lectern.

How are you? he said. And they said, We are fine. They were clean and bright as gunmetal.

Are you? he said. Perhaps I’ll never know.

He folded the piece of paper and put it back into the portfolio. That night, he posted the words on his blog, where they were certain to be unseen, ever again.

– Greg Blake Miller

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