“It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price. One has to abandon altogether the search for security and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying” (Morris L. West, The Shoes of the Fisherman).
I was born just after the Second World War ended. In my adolescence the Vietnam conflict was a distant fray to our pacifist Mennonite community. In midlife I learned that we humans have waged about 14,000 wars in 3,000 years of history, and my gratitude began deepening as I realized that not one of these wars had involved me directly.
At my last birthday I turned 70, and feel I’m still beginning to fathom how rare it must be to live out a lifetime spared the horrors and carnage others have endured — or are enduring — in our species’ crazy penchant for warmongering. In my youth I was haunted by the King James Bible’s forewarning, “The days of our years are threescore years and 10; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away.” And by now the adage has become even more trenchant.
While growing up I was vaguely aware of some leftover stigma attached to “COs” — the dismissive label given to conscientious objectors, like my father, who had claimed this status on religious grounds at a time when pacifism in Canada was highly unpopular. Yet it hardly seemed to me that many of my people fought with God the way I did. Take for instance the man who operated the “loudspeaker” in the Salem country church. As Sunday services got underway he sat at the end of a pew far back in the sanctuary, adjusting the volume and tone controls on the amplifier, then settled down, his main sabbath duty done, and dozed off.
I used to turn my head often to check, and can’t recall ever seeing him awake during a sermon. On weekdays he ran a business called “Underground Services.” Sometimes I’d watch him on the seat of his yellow Massey-Harris industrial tractor, manipulating hydraulic levers as the bucket dug a trench through a pasture to bring running water to someone’s farmyard, looking nearly as relaxed as he did in church rotating his dials. I had no idea what such a serene life might be like, and in a way envied it.
But then, I had my own.
In hindsight, it’s astonishing how many missionaries that small country church produced, and among them were a good number of my own kin. These relatives travelled far from home geographically — not to fight wars, but to save souls — although (also in hindsight) their minds mostly seem to have stayed at home in the prairie revivalism that had shaped them. To me as a child, their tales were exotic. One letter from Uncle Ed and Aunt Edna described their approaching an Ethiopian village in a jeep. Several miles out, they were met by a contingent of natives who jumped from the bushes and raced ahead of them just inches in front of the bumper. Every few seconds someone leaped aside, and darted back into formation a step or two ahead of the moving vehicle, and this continued all the way into the village. This (as they explained later) was to kill the evil spirits that would be accompanying the missionaries, so what had looked like a welcoming ceremony was also to get the spirits run over by the jeep without any harm coming to the people themselves. And how those missionaries rejoiced to be arriving with news of the Jesus who would forgive them and take their benighted souls to heaven someday, no matter the fate of the pursuing demons.
I did not venture so far geographically, only far enough to learn for myself the mind’s heavens and hells and voids. Henry David Thoreau claimed to have “travelled a good deal in the town of Concord,” and reluctant as I am to suggest any comparison with such a towering mystic, my own small “Concord” has been the life of this one mind. Often enough it’s been a battlefield with Old Jehovah (and I have a limp in my psyche to show for it), or with the Lucifer who was almost as fearsome as God himself, or with a horde of lesser devils like those my Uncle Ed’s jeep was supposed to quash.
“Threescore and 10 years” — this biblical maxim requires me to think about the measure of a life, and the full cost of its living. And I’m still not sure. I’ve been spared the outer butchery of war, which may account for the dubious “luxury” I feel of living an inward life to its own kind of resolution. Private life is, after all, what humans go out in public to fight for. The subjective half of reality is where ecstasies and terrors and guilts are lived, and where peace amid commotion seems almost as rare and tenuous as any accord reached in the outer world after enough agony has been borne.
One of my aging friends who, for most of his life has suffered the assaults of both physical and mental illnesses, says that his main objective is to leave the world the way he found it. I hope I can do at least that much — or as little.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors' writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.