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Monday, April 20, 2015
History ... Personal Reflections ... Society ...

A few days ago I was looking for a book in my apartment, and I just happened to brush across an interesting collection of spiritual writings from the late Dag Hammarskjold. This book, called “Markings”, was NOT the book that I was looking for; but in another sense, perhaps it was. Markings is Dr. Hammarskjold’s life-long spiritual diary, a collection of reflections on his inner struggle for truth, meaning and transcendence. I.e., a place where you write stuff like:

Courage and love: equivalent and related expressions for your bargain with Life. You are willing to pay what your heart commands you to give.


Night is drawing nigh – How long the road is. But, for all the time the journey has already taken, how you have needed every second of it in order to learn what the road passes by.

Deep thoughts, indeed. So I moved the book from a bottom shelf in a remote storage area to my bedside nightstand, where I can take in some of Dag’s reflections before retiring. The book itself brings back memories for me. It’s a 1977 printing and is now turning brown and brittle around the edges. I received it in 1978, when I was a young man who himself was not yet turning brown and brittle. It was given to me as a going-away present by some nice people at a social services agency that I volunteered with down in Alexandria, VA (back before the Metro subway came in and turned it into an extension of Georgetown, back when Alexandria still had a lot of people who needed those services). I had been accepted into Rutgers law school, and was thus moving back north to New Jersey, where I grew up. They figured that some Dag H might help me along on my own journey.

Well, to be honest, I never really made much use of the book. Law school and all that came afterwards just sucked me in like a vacuum cleaner, and Markings pretty much sat on a shelf gaining dust, year after year (although it went with me to all the various places that I lived). Well, this book’s time has finally come, here in the twilight of my so-called professional career.

Back in 1978, I was hoping that law school would put get me on a track similar to the one that Dag Hammarskjold experienced. Hammarskjold was a man for all seasons, or quite a few anyway. He was a pretty good athlete, had earned an undergraduate degree in literature and poetry, and then obtained a doctorate in economics (I can relate to the latter, as I got a masters degree in that subject right after graduating from law school). He worked his way up as a civil servant in Sweden’s foreign ministry, got assigned to the United Nations, and eventually made his way to the “top of the world”. I.e., he was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953, the year that I was born.

Dag Hammarskjold became a man of history, a man who helped to get the world through the turbulent Cold War years when the US and Soviet Union were ready to fricassee themselves and human civilization to an extra-crispy texture with their expanding thermonuclear arsenals. He and the UN also helped to guide Africa and other third-world areas on the perilous path from European colonial rule to independence (and that was how he died, in a 1961 plane crash in Africa while trying to arrange a cease-fire in a civil war that broke out in the Congo following the end of Belgian domination).

Dr. H had a spiritual side which he attributed to his mother, who came from a family of clergymen, scholars and poets. The depth of his inner life only became clear after his death, when Markings was published. Overall, it looks like Dag Hammarskjold had it all, in terms of what really matters in life (and death). He had the chance to use it to the fullest, in the world of international politics, for the worthy causes of peace and justice. And use it he did.

By contrast, my own life looks like a cheap, diluted imitation of what Dr. Hammarskjold actually accomplished in his service to society. Despite my own similarly broad-based education, life experiences and spiritual longings, I made it no further than two short stays as a desk jockey in federal and state bureaucracies, then a handful of years with an insurance service firm and an urban development group, followed by a longer (but no more world-changing) tour with a county-level law enforcement agency. Pretty much a quiet and ordinary life, as compared with the history-making circles that Dag Hammarskjold ran in. (But then again, my father wasn’t a state governor and then a national prime minister, as was Hammarskjold’s father; you could say that Dag started a bit further up the food chain than I did.)

However, it is interesting and perhaps in some ways consoling to know that the venerable Dag Hammarskjold didn’t do too much better than I did in the dating and mating realm, in the game of love. He never married, nor had a “significant other”. In a prurient society like ours, we want to know “which way do you go”. But not surprisingly, a ready answer is not available for a deep but ultimately private man like Dag Hammarksjold. One source claims that

he had lost a woman he deeply loved to another man, and this was a wound that never left him. He never dated or pursued marriage again. He longed to be married, but, for all kinds of reasons, as is the case for millions of people, it just never happened.

But another web source states that W. H. Auden, who edited and translated Markings

was convinced of [Hammarskjold’s] homosexuality; it is thought that saying so publicly during a lecture tour of Scandinavia may have cost Auden the Nobel Prize for Literature that he was widely expected to receive in the 1960s.

However, many conclude that sex just wasn’t a big concern for Mr. H, and that he was basically “asexual”.

I take my hat off to a guy who was on a mission to save the world, who intensely believed in what he was doing, and just didn’t have the time to “get his freak on”. And yet, not having a devoted life partner, via marriage or other arrangement, can be a lonely road to travel sometimes, as I well know. It’s too bad that in our world, in our day, devoted life partnerships generally evolve from sexually motivated interactions; and devoted partnerships are assumed to require sexual activity of some sort to survive. It’s too bad that asexual commitment is such a rare occurrence (perhaps limited to the religious imitators of Abelard & Heloise, post-attack phase), even in older years.

Markings has more than one entry where the topic of loneliness is pondered by Dag Hammarksjold. And that is consoling. Perhaps it’s just an occupational hazard for anyone who sets out on an idealistic quest in life (even – or especially after the wonderful inspirations that started you down this road are lost and forgotten). As the lyrics to Sting’s “Message in a Bottle” go,

Seems I’m not alone in being along.

PS — I read that there’s a movement going on in the Roman Catholic Church supporting the canonization of early 20th Century writer Gilbert K. Chesterton. Chesterton is remembered as a fervent Catholic apologist and a very entertaining writer. He died in 1936, when Dag Hammarksjold was about 30 years old and in the early phases of his diplomatic career. I bring that up because it seems to me that the real saint here is being overlooked. Chesterton wrote a lot of things, and not all of them were very spiritual . . . he definitely had a streak of anti-Semitism in him. By contrast, Hammarksjold was out there on the front line of international politics, trying to stop wars from happening. Yes, the fact that he came from a Lutheran family and didn’t formally practice any religion at all does preclude him from Papal recognition. But come on now, can’t the Catholic faith do any better in living up to Hammarksjold’s legacy than G.K. Chesterton?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:07 pm      

  1. Jim, That’s what I like about *books* – as opposed to electronic books, etc. — that one can pick up years and years later and find something wonderful in them. (I wonder how many electronic books will be picked up perhaps 40 years from now and carefully read. At this point electronics are such that one can no longer read a hard disc from the old days; there are dozens of “old time” pictures taken that can no longer be seen because the movie projectors are no longer even being repaired so they can be used.)

    I also think about the authors of those books that people find wonderful things in so many years later: Did it every occur to the author that someday, maybe 50 years later, after the author was long dead, that someone might pick up his/her book and find something really valuable in that book? That to me is an amazing thing. A book printed in the 1970s that you received in the 1970s, written by a man who died in 1961 is valuable to you in 2015! That’s the thing about books: One never knows the good they will do and the good they will do for some stranger the author never met.

    I’d like to make an analogy to people too – specifically, you in this situation. While you are unmarried now and may feel alone, I think one can never say what good people do in their separate existences. It may seem impossible that you would have an influence some time in the future; but I’m sure Hammarskjold would have tho’t you reading his book in 2015 and finding the value in it would be impossible too. One never knows what influence one might have on others through life. We may feel like the old, dust-covered book left in the corner, never to be picked up and read; yet who is to say what influence one’s life may have on others, albeit completely unknown to that person.

    So rather than be sure you’re alone and lacking in influence, I’d give it another “think”. MCS
    P.S. As to Chesterton: I have read little, if anything of his. But I never have tho’t of him in terms of sainthood, honored by the Vatican. Then again, there are so many saints so honored who I find myself amazed that they are called “saint”. I tend to think more in terms of the plain, ordinary person, struggling hard to live a good life, doing his/her best throughout life; struggling to do good by other people, if only a little; *those* are the ones I’d like to see called “saint”. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 21, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

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