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/