Flags are ubiquitous, and patriotism is in full flower. It puts me in mind of Operation Desert Storm, when the country was awash in flags, yellow ribbons and tough talk. I felt disconnected and isolated from the mass of my fellow citizens, a disgusted and impotent voice of dissent. Then I met Dan Lawrence. A peace activist, carpenter and poet, he was a riddle wrapped inside an enigma surrounded by a faith so unpolished, earth-stained and approachable that I soon discovered that, all by himself and unbeknownst to him, Dan’s very existence was a surprise antidote for my antiwar blues. His utterly unique friendship, and his life, came to an end just days before the Sept. 11 tragedy, so these days of grief, flags and bombs recall me to a similar experience of violence, dismay and overwrought patriotism a decade ago that led me to an unexpected source of fellowship, consolation and wisdom.
The pervasiveness, if not hegemony, of the flag stems from the fact that in wartime, symbols and signs on the home front are as important as ammunition on the battle front. Dan was no flag-waver, but he loved carrying signs. He never missed an opportunity to vigil—to hold a sign, to carry a message to the people around him—sometimes as part of a group, but very often alone. He made it a part of his routine, setting aside a number of hours each week. I have a picture of him that appeared once in the Worcester newspaper, a photo of him sitting next to a downtown war memorial holding a sign that reads: “LOVE YOUR ENEMIES? Jesus Christ.” His signs were not his flag: he didn’t hang them outside his house or on his car’s antenna, and he didn’t proselytize. On the contrary, he simply considered his silent vigiling to be part of his work.
In many ways the close association I make between Dan and signs is ironic, since he was such a visible and unmistakable sign himself. Hobbled, bone-thin, with ill-fitting clothes and oversized work boots, severely arthritic hands, scraggly white beard and a big smile revealing bad teeth—he surely needed no sign to set himself apart. Nor was his uniqueness in any way contrived. I can’t imagine a more guileless man. His unrelentingly blunt manner was at once arresting and childlike, his humor puerile and heart-warming. Even as he was worn rough by this world, he retained a naïveté that was at times startling, due in part to his years in the monastery as a young man. I imagine he appeared as something of a character to passersby, but to those who knew him he shone as an honest, loyal friend and an unpretentious spiritual model.
For me, perhaps his greatest sign was not one he carried, but one he gently communicated to me over the years. “Variety, variation and newness are manifestations of God,” he would say. “There is no containing God—he is limitless, he is tolerant.” Dan openly acknowledged that the spiritual life was mostly a puzzle to him. When he felt God receding, he didn’t like it but he accepted it; when he felt God’s consolations, he didn’t understand it but he let himself be embraced by it. As he aged, he used to tell me he felt himself being broken open by God, and he was able to laugh at himself more easily—more tolerant of imperfections in himself and the world.
During this time when mixed emotion is a strong potion indeed, it behooves us to strike a balance between defending ourselves and standing up for tolerance, between seeking justice and showing mercy. Like many Americans, I can hardly contain my outrage and desire for swift and final justice. At the same time, I cringe at rampant flag-waving and its contradictory symbolism. To say the flag is flown as a show of unity assumes a single meaning, but what is that meaning—freedom? patriotism? support for the troops? military might? the land of opportunity? the melting pot? Even the most loyal American can see in the flag a symbol of lopsided globalization, unjust economic conditions and a foreign policy based as much on opportunism as on altruism. As Mikhail Gorbachev expressed it in The New York Times (10/28), many who side with the United States in decrying terrorism nevertheless “wonder whether the world’s most powerful country should be bombing impoverished Afghanistan.” All would agree that the flag should symbolize tolerance for diversity and dissent, but ironically at times like these when flags are omnipresent, that element of its symbolism can be lost.
An oft-jailed protestor of violence in all its forms, Dan did things during his 70 years that to most Americans would range from an irrelevant waste of time to brazenly unpatriotic. I’m relieved he missed out on what President George W. Bush has called the first war of the 21st century. At the same time, I could use a dose of his sanity right about now. What am I to do with my unaccustomed desire for revenge and retribution, alongside feelings of disgust with silly patriotism and intolerance of dissenting views?
Sometimes there is no easy way to clear the air and make the dust settle. At such times gestures and symbols loom large and reassure many. As we continue to make our way from the rubble in an atmosphere charged with anger, sorrow and anxiety and saturated with extremes of black and white and the rhetoric of evil and good, us and them, I think about Dan pacing to and fro, faintly smiling, carrying his sign, and himself like a man seeking not to vanquish his enemies but to somehow learn to love them.