Shadows on the Stars

Holding onto Hope in a World that’s Hard to Understand

By Susan Cooke

Sure on this shining night

Of star made shadows round,

Kindness must watch for me

This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.

All is healed, all is health.

High summer holds the earth.

Hearts all whole.

Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone

Of shadows on the stars.

—James Agee (1909-1955) from his first published collection of poems, Permit me Voyage

Twentieth-century classical composer Samuel Barber’s setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Agee’s poem “Sure On This Shining Night” is one of my favorite songs to sing, which I do a lot of when I’m not writing. I love it because it’s an impassioned jewel of a poem filled with sorrow and hope, and because Barber wrote such gloriously inspired music for it. The song came tumbling into my head recently as I pondered when and how all this misery we’re now immersed in would end.

You can hear several lovely performances of it on YouTube, but I was especially moved by this luminous one sung by soprano Roberta Alexander:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgskIsztC8w.

Agee’s voice as a writer was a major presence during the Great Depression. The website AllPoetry calls his book Let us Now Praise Famous Men “an eloquent and anguished testimony about the essential human dignity of impoverished sharecroppers during the 1930s,” adding that it’s regarded as one of the most significant literary documents of that time. While “Sure On This Shining Night” is not from that book but from the collection of poems Permit me Voyage, the site’s commentary suggests its words must be understood in the context of the suffering and darkness of the Depression, about which Agee wrote so much and so eloquently.

Suffering and darkness were on my mind as the song came back to me, yet my personal take on the poem has always been that in this beautiful world we inhabit, hope must triumph over despair. Lately I’ve wondered more and more, is hope even realistic? And yet I can’t imagine us all moving in any direction other than hope. Anything else is too unbearable. Still, it seems so many of us, with or without forethought, and for reasons many others of us cannot understand, are willing to accept an ending filled with despair.

As your basic non-cynic, I’ve always thought, when it come to most problems, “Of course we can solve it!” But one woman’s comment on the news recently stopped me in my tracks. As experts were calling the rising numbers of Covid cases near-apocalyptic, she was asked, in one of those states where it’s the worst, why she won’t wear a mask (I paraphrase here) even though it might mean she could become quite ill or contribute to someone else’s severe illness. Her answer, “That’s life,” chilled me. When asked, “Even if that other person dies?” she said something I’ve heard a few times now in such interviews: “We all have to go sometime.”

This willingness to contribute to the suffering and very possible death of others–maybe many others–especially coming from a youngish person–maybe late 20’s or early 30’s from what I could tell–old enough to have had a chance to read or watch at least some news and think some about the issues, one would imagine–knocked me flat. My optimism took a dive and I felt awfully depressed. I had to remind myself of all the stories I’d seen and heard in which many Americans are trying to help in any way they can, not just with the pandemic but with fighting racisim and inequality, fighting for fair elections, for kinder prisons, to end the suffering of those without a voice such as children and animals, and to stop global warming.

With so many problems facing us all, and with having to see lately such a terrible confluence of events and words on the world stage that push us toward despair, it’s indeed hard to maintain hope. When we see selfishness or hate revealed by random people on the street who talk to reporters, as has occurred often lately, it’s deeply upsetting not only because we can see they may have been influenced by some of our leaders who we hear voicing similar sentiments, but also because we know it adds to the suffering of many. It’s just hard to accept that some of our fellow humans can be that lacking in compassion.

Some of us wrack our brains asking how so many people can feel loyalty to such a shockingly incompetent, narcissistic, downright mean person as the one now at the helm of our country. We see what we think are bright young people, usually the hope of the world, admiring this person and taking a cue from him that it’s fine to offend and hurt those of other colors or religions, and to kill people by ignoring science if you feel like it. I personally am fortunate never to have met a person like that, so they almost seem unreal or made up to me. It’s naive, I know, but it remains hard for me to understand how people so young can already be filled with so much hate and lack of empathy. Of course the adults who must have taught them also stun and sadden me. So, again, to maintain even a little hope, I must think of the many other people of all ages I know who are out there fighting hard for justice and good.

Still I have to ask, is there no way to reach those who seem so hateful and uncaring, and let them know this is not a good road they’re traveling on? How on earth do we convince them?

I have to reiterate what I always end up saying, that in the end, after all my research I come up with the same solutions for almost all our stressful issues, both in our cities and everywhere else: kindness, empathy, and compassion. These may seem like soft words that can’t accomplish much, but in fact they possess great power and have often caused near-mountains to be moved. And this is what we must do now–move mountains. Of course money and political influence will likely also be necessary because of the way the world works at present, along with lots of education by example. But what ultimately can bring all those things into play is a flood of energetic and deep compassion, pushed and insisted on by citizens themselves, even if their leaders are devoid of it.

In another post here there will be some solutions including those shown by research to help, but at this moment many of us need to make what for some seems quite a difficult leap–from mostly self-interest to caring about and supporting the other person and the need to work together to solve our many problems. We need to find ways to learn to accept, empathize with, and appreciate those different from us, especially right now, in order to help protect each other from Covid-19, and to save the planet from global warming, just for starters.

If we can just begin to do this we may find once more, partly just because we’re working together, our long-lost sense of community, known to be one of the major contributors to wellbeing. We might start to get an inkling of the joy we can feel in a life that involves more than becoming super-successful and living fast, loud, and heavy on the earth even though such a life often causes suffering for other people and for animals. We might discover another kind of happiness in a life that contributes to the greater good even in small ways, such as not torturing our neighbors and further polluting the planet with loud gas-powered leaf-blowers, or destroying someone’s moment of peace with a blasting radio. These are just a few ways of putting empathy and kindness into practice, and they all will improve wellbeing for everyone.

We might like how it feels to live without the hatred or bigotry that makes no sense in a world that needs to move beyond such a destructive aspect of our culture, and to enjoy meeting and learning about those different from us. The fact is increasing research shows that we all need each other. Americans’ existence is sadly isolated now, with a corresponding rise in loneliness and a decline in mental health caused by that loneliness, and by chronic feelings of loss due to moving from job to job, home to home, state to state, and leaving a trail of friends and family behind us each time we go, in search of…what? More success? More thrills? Bigtime success and thrills are nice to experience, but we can also include in our lives proven benefits from deeper, perhaps quieter successes and joys many of us rarely experience because of this lifestyle, such as getting to know and keep even one or two really good friends–or more if we’re lucky–friends who live near us and who we can see often.

So besides what we may have been taught, might it be in large part a feeling of disconnectedness that’s making many of us less kind, or completely unable to care somehow? And could we possibly become more compassionate for ourselves and for others by slowing down a little, giving to ourselves and others more time each day to stop the noise and feel some calm and peace, asking a little less of our careers, connecting more deeply with people, and making our goals lean at least partly toward being in this way a helpful light in the world and for the world?

Could more of us then see the value and the gift of others who share the planet with us, most of whom are really nice to know? Can we start to embrace and benefit from the gifts of nature and of what could become a happier, more serene neighborhood or city? Can we then more easily work hard, all together as partners, on immediate problems such as doing what it takes to get out of this pandemic, lift up our unemployed, underpaid and otherwise struggling populations so there will be less anxiety, depression, suicide, and crime, and resolve policing issues which, I believe, would improve if we did lift those many citizens out of poverty?

When I think of such a world, and of all the good and kind acts I do hear about every day, I regain some of my dashed hopes, and dare to think my longtime dream of humans evolving away from some of their worst qualities and closer to their best ones might come true.

When I sing Sure On This Shining Night, especially the line “I weep for wonder,” I imagine people living more lightly and with more love on the earth.

It’s truly hard to go on without that dream.

Note: To read in more detail about Agee and the poem Sure On This Shining Night, go to https://allpoetry.com/Sure-On-This-Shining-Night

To read more about Samuel Barber’s choices in setting the poem to music, his later setting of Agee’s collection of poems Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and the friendship with Agee that ensued, go to https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200182573/

Some Ways to End Hatred

This article is mostly about reducing hatred and the misery it causes in America, but in the background is the rest of the world, which I mention because of what it and America now have in common. We and many other countries now stand on a precipice. At the bottom is the hellish existence we all face if we don’t solve several terrible problems we share including global warming, poverty, the decline of mental health, and hatred and its associates racism and anti-semitism. These problems will be solved more easily if all countries collaborate to share ideas and to help each other.

While current U.S. leadership thinks being a loner makes America great, the world is now so small that other countries seem to live just down the block. We need to get busy, with or without presidential help, rekindling old friendships with other countries and repairing strained relationships with them so we can make our efforts at home to stop hatred also become worldwide efforts to stop it. Many cities outside our country are protesting the murder of George Floyd, watching how we handle this moment, and I think rooting for us to find ways to solve these problems.

Our next step here however must be to arrest the officers who did not try to stop the murder. I hope that’s happened by the time this is published. This doesn’t mean they’re guilty and is not a trial. But doing nothing will only incite further protests which may cause more destruction, or cause our unstable president to again make matters worse by intimidating, offending, and harming protesters with absurdly inappropriate military might.

Next, we all need to see and hear serious talk followed by immediate action, about police reform and about equality for all in this country. The president should stay out of it since his only interest as everyone knows is in getting elected again.

There must be ongoing clear communication with the public about how the case is proceeding including plans for a trial, what plans have already been discussed on changing policing, and what else is in the works now to show we’re serious about laws and reforms that will stop this terrible cancer in our culture. The point is the people need to see action now.

To accomplish what must be the immediate raising up of all who are downtrodden here (now an emergency of the highest order) we need not just the help of government leaders but also business leaders. On CNN this past week Martin Luther King III called at one point for large businesses to help. I agree, because with some thought and effort they can help provide or at least encourage creation of more jobs, higher minimum wage, a racism-free work atmosphere, funding for media campaigns that encourage the same, and more. All businesses need to strive to do this, but Big Business’s big money does talk and can get big things done.

Also critical is the need for better laws at federal, state, and local levels, which must include a strong focus on safe and fair voting, ethically-run elections, much more support for the poor, homeless, unemployed and underemployed, fairness, justice, equal opportunity, and elimination of hunger and homelessness. If all this change requires giving checks to everyone below a certain income, that’s what we need to do (see Annie Lowrey’s book Give People Money).

Our government, business leaders, and educational and research institutions all need to support decent housing and ways to provide more healthy food, including eliminating food deserts and repairing and beautifying now-downtrodden neighborhoods, adding to them healing nature with trees and parks, and adding a sense of safe community by helping business owners open stores and establish cafes, coffee shops, etc. that include outdoor seating. All American cities need more of those amenities that add nature and a place to meet and feel community, because researchers say we are chronically nature-starved and too isolated socially for the most part. But poor communities often have not one of these benefits, and the resulting atmosphere adds to their feelings of hopelessness.

Mayors of cities have already banked up a lot of wisdom, and often have to come up with solutions to big problems with no outside help. Both singly and together with other mayors they’ve been wonderfully innovative. In this case we need them to assure citizens first that there will be immediate police reform, and then to help secure the requirements such as better pay and more food that are mentioned above. Governors hopefully will also help with these changes throughout their states. When federal leadership is lacking, governors and mayors have shown they get a great deal done by helping each other, so we can hope that will continue at least until there is a competent president again.

Chiefs of police are clearly also important in this process, and besides being good leaders of the force must be also humanitarian leaders, and teachers in the community. One critical task they have now is to stop allowing people to become police officers who were once playground bullies, or who ever showed the slightest indication of a bent toward cruelty, sadism, or obsession with weapons, or showed any other psychopathology.

Psychologists who understand police work, then, need to be hired to develop tests and interviews that reveal such personalities, so they are not hired. Once officers are cleared and hired, they should be required to sign contracts that.pledge to respect and treat humanely every individual they encounter. They need to be coached in helping to reduce racism and hatred in their communities, and informed that any actions or comments to the contrary will not be tolerated. Oversight and laws will probably be needed to ensure that these changes are made and adhered to.

The media and ad agencies can help us reach an entire swath of people who are prejudiced in many different ways and for many reasons. Some hate anyone not white, others hate Jews, the list goes on. They’re out there and we’ll probably never know how many there are, but the idea is to reach them and try to help them see why it’s best for everyone including them not to continue this way. This requires educating people wherever possible, not just in school and at home but in workplaces, on TV with messages and shows suitable for both kids and adults, and on billboards, posters, and signs in front of homes as we already see now in some places.

I’ve always believed, perhaps being too much of an optimist, that civilization would finally evolve, becoming kind, empathetic, and wise. Here and there there’s been a glimmer of hope, but given our problems now, that’s not enough. The time to evolve is here. It’s too late for a slow change because this is an emergency. I believe we can do it, and the rest of the world might just follow.

Let the murder of George Floyd help carry us to that new place we should have gotten to long before now. In this new evolved era we’ll need to understand that to stop hate, nothing is likely to work as well as the power of kindness and empathy. Many of us don’t think about these concepts often, so the concepts might have to be taught, and then practiced. Still, good laws will be needed as backup to protect the rights of all during those times when some forget to practice this new ethic of kindness.

Many cynics, or other people who somehow enjoy feeling prejudice, may sneer at the idea of kindness, empathy, and generosity being the norm, and the accepted way to work, govern, and live. Let them. Then remind them that the alternative is further disintegration into the tragic morass in which we now find ourselves. Explain that we all need people to recognize that hate and fear of others gets in the way of happiness for everyone, and often causes much of the harm and suffering in our world.

Teachers in our schools can help deliver this message by promoting kindness and empathy in the classroom and on the playground. They can stop bullies immediately, and then teach them why that behavior is so bad for them and for the world. If the children are bullied at home they need to be counseled and helped. There should be school psychologists available who can help detect whether there is abuse at home or in the child’s neighborhood.

Although many have tried unsuccessfully in the past, each of us needs to continue to encourage and model that because someone’s color or religion is different there is no need to fear or hate them, and that we can all be friends, and benefit a great deal from the friendship. It needs to be a ubiquitous message, at least until there is change. We need to emphasize that friends are important, and that it’s wonderful to have many of all kinds because the mental health boost given us by having such a supportive community is said by researchers to make us happier and even more physically healthy. More happy people seem likely to help to make the world a happier, less violent place. We need to get across that being together as one people is actually possible, and is much better for us than division and hate. Children need to get this message too, early and often.

To further encourage this togetherness, I can report that rapper Killer Mike, asked by Stephen Colbert on his show what else we all can do to help, requested that we donate to and/or volunteer to work with one or more of the many grassroots organizations trying to help African Americans in many cities, such as Movement for Black Lives, and commit to doing this for some time.

I’ve mentioned ad experts and the media. They can help by crafting and showing messages and PSAs that remind us that treating others kindly is no longer just a nice thing but is essential, and that not getting to know those who are different out of fear and old hatreds makes our lives much duller and surely less joyful. I’m no ad expert but here are some of my (rough) ideas for marketing slogans, which I imagine might have some good art to accompany them: “Love people. Most of us are really cool,” or “Love. It feels so much better than hate,” or “Most people are fascinating. Don’t hate them. Get to know them!” And there’s an older one that’s still good: “Live and Let Live,” or another version of it I came up with: “Live and Help Others Live.”

A nationwide deep apology is also now called for, and it should come from every business and government leader.

We can do this. The wrongs that have been done are clear. If we can’t make this cultural shift toward changing from hate to love, then the tyranny and suffering will continue. If we can’t manage to turn toward kindness as the American way of life, we are not only pathetic, we are lost.