Forgive me in advance if this post doesn’t seem like your cup of tea. I’m unspooling a lot of thoughts from my head at the moment, but fear not, I’m fine. I’m just taking my time to speak my mind.
I’ve been mesmerised by this poem lately after watching it on Vlogbrothers, called September 1st, 1939, by W.H. Auden. Like John, or even more so than him, I only treated the poem as a glimpse of the past, a past I could never fully understand. As a fifteen-year-old, I barely understand my own time, let alone an era of war that existed eighty years before I did. But as I read the poem again and listened to John, I found that there were certain parts of the poem that I could comprehend.
I find myself in this spot of my life where I feel responsible for things I’ve never done or never intended to do. There’s this strange aura around me right now that’s both very new and very discomforting, to say the least, which makes me feel terribly guilty of my actions, and until now, I didn’t know what was causing this.
The poem begins “I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade“, and while these lines refer to the 1930s, it holds true for the present as well. I can’t put a finger on what it is, but something about the the decade we’re living in feels deeply scary. Sure, we’re at the pinnacle of scientific and technological breakthroughs, countries are way more secure than they were back then, but there is still a lingering aftermath of the hatred that the past endured. We find ourselves at the mercy of the social internet and its vagarious nature. Virtual communication is usurping the need to form real-life bonds. Relationships (not talking about just romantic ones, mind you) are made and shattered in seconds, and I hate it.
I find myself deeply and consistently aware of the transience of life, and though that’s an accurate description for any decade — the truth that life as we know it will end — now, that’s mixed with another, more disturbing truth: in today’s world, we are precariously tied to being fake and happy at the expense of being real and honest.
What I hate the most is how most people, including me, are terrified by this image, but not moved enough to change it. In John’s words, it’s like we’re all actors stuck in a play that we can’t rewrite.
We call people trash. We lash out at them for things they don’t necessarily control. We say it’s fine to break trust as if it’s something transitory, easily mendable, and in the process, we actually end up treating people as trash, we break trust, and we hate people just for the sake of not being able to love enough.
I now realize why I feel so guilty. It’s because I let myself be swept away by these waves of fear and hatred. I actually believed, even if for a moment, that loving people and being kind to them was not only stupid and dumb, but also extremely dangerous in this world, where hate runs everything. I hold myself responsible for the things I say out of hatred, but now I realize more and more, that the world we live in pushes me to treat every interaction with a neutral, indifferent tone. So who, exactly, do we blame? Ourselves? Circumstance?
I realize that I probably should reiterate the statement that I’m fine, but I am at the same time, absolutely clueless about how to resolve this. The last stanza of the poem does well to translate my thoughts into words:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
As we grow older, and just a little bit wiser, I hope that we can learn to put our intense emotions aside, and just for a while, feel safe, knowing that the light we shine towards others is fair, real, pure and full of love. As Auden said,
We must love one another or die.