There are times when I ask myself why I am so obsessed with what I think of as my "message." It is a perfectly simple message: Fellow humans, wake up, we are going the wrong way.
Obviously that is such a weird idea that people cannot hear me. How can there be a wrong way? After all, we are here, now. Man is what he is today. Yes, twenty, two hundred, two thousand years ago we were different. And we were raised with the idea that we are the end product of an always improving evolution. We are civilized, we have a trillion gadgets, we fly around the world. We walk on the moon. We are the masters of this planet. I know people who believe we are the only life in the universe.
That kind of thinking is strange to me. Perhaps because my growing up was different. I grew up in a place and at a time when the general idea was that we were as we had been for quite a while. People around me recognized that some things had changed from the old days -- and most of those changes were "bad," unpleasant -- but we had refined ourselves. And perhaps the most important idea that I grew up with is that change is a choice. We must carefully weigh the possible advantages or disadvantages. We should be careful not to change too much all at once. That would be confusing, "dizzying." It was a good way to grow up.
From that world, at age 17, 18, I was thrown into western Europe at the threshold of world war two [I dislike capital letters]. A great shock. The most advanced cultures of the mid twentieth century putting enormous energies behind killing each other. Civilization, so-called, at its worst. I tried to get away. The only place I could think to go was America, although I knew less than nothing about this country; I knew its geography, States and Capitals, Rivers, Mountains. I got a visa easy enough, but all ships going that way were booked at least eight months ahead. The war caught me in the Netherlands. Five years of Occupation by a nasty, violent country, They were eventually bombed out of the game, with the help of the power and might of the United States the second half of those five long years.
After the war we, survivors, tried to put behind us the death and destruction, the always mounting pressure from above, the hunger of the last six months, an empty, plundered country.
Again five years later I was allowed to come to the United States as a student. The U.S. was the second great shock of my life. Growing up I always had an affinity for people at the bottom of the heap. During the war I experienced what it is to live smashed under a heavy boot. Nobody had told me that in America black people were shut out from large parts of society. I can still feel what I felt when I was told that a dentist and his family had an auto accident. Two ambulances had to go to three hospitals before these black people would be admitted. Now, sixty-nine years later, we have a "black" president (his white mother does not count?), and the response of numbers of the American people has been to stock up on guns and ammunition.
But I stayed. I was determined to adjust, become an American. Understand this culture, go nuts over football.
Ten years later I have a dream job, a model family, we lived well; everybody healthy and happy. My job sends me and the whole family to Southeast Asia for research. My research was, as a Brit put it, to find out why people eat what they do and not what they should. In Malaysia we were probably no more than a hundred miles from where I grew up -- across a narrow ocean, in another country. But the same people, same language. In twenty years not much had changed. Indonesia and Malaysia were recently independent, but my focus was still down rather than up. Politics meant little to me. Governments change; life in the villages had not changed much from the life I knew.
I met a small group of First People, Aborigines.
Something in me awoke. I recognized in them my deepest self: our, my, human roots. They were as we all were a long time ago. I have tried to write about what happened in me, but the best description I found is from another: Peter Matthiessen, famous travel writer, in his book The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972. Matthiessen is on a short expedition, with a friend, Enderlein, in East Africa. By chance they meet five "pygmies:"
"Shy, they await in a half-circle, much less tall than their bows. "Tsifiaqua!" they murmur, and our people say, "Tsifiaqua mtana," and then the hunters say, "Mt-aa-na!" for warm emphasis, smiling wholeheartedly. (Tsifiaqua is "afternoon" as in "good afternoon," and mtana is "nice" as in "nice day." and tsifiaqua m-taa-na, as the hunters say it, may mean, "Oh beautiful day!" I am smiling wholeheartedly too, and so is Enderlein; my smile seems to travel right around my head. The encounter in the sunny wood is much too simple, too beautiful to be real, yet it is more real than anything i have known in a long time. I feel a warm flood of relief, as if I had been away all my life and had come home again -- I want to embrace them all.