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Harmony and discord

Alex Coccia | Monday, October 8, 2012

“Silent night, holy night … Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march Sunday into the Chicago suburb of Cicero … Police in Cicero said they would ask the National Guard be called out if it is held … Round yon virgin mother and child … In Washington, the atmosphere was tense today as a special sub-committee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities continued its probe into anti-Vietnam war protest … Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Such is the chilling and poignant juxtaposition of the Aug. 3, 1966, 7:00 news and the simple carol, “Silent Night,” produced by Simon and Garfunkel. Such is the dichotomous view of the world they present. It is a view of the world with a surface theme of harmony, but the undertone of conflict. Saul Alinsky says that if all of human history could be incorporated into a singular musical score, it would be one of discord. This song, while unifying disparate themes, is wrought with division and strife.
As part of a story of an era in American history, the subtext is prejudice. It is a view of the world in which humans come together to praise what is sacred while underneath the ineffable is the mental, physical and emotional clash of these human beings. It contrasts the celebration of a single human life with the consecration of the view of human beings as objects and as means.
The irony surrounding this juxtaposition is that it is the reality of our existence. James Carroll writes, “I claim an identity that limits me. Yet equally it gives me a place to stand.” Here, Carroll identifies the present balance: standing tall in our self-identity while not letting our height block that invaluable vision of others, not letting our vision of the sacred block our engagement with those around us. Recognizing this reality can lead to either a defeatist and apocalyptic attitude or a call to action.
Unfortunately, there is certainly no definitive answer to change this reality. Indeed, the process throughout human history has been one of success and failure, where conflict has been the perceived means to peace, where the resolution of one conflict plants the seeds of another and where human beings are both the ends, and the means to a perceived greater end. There are few road maps and limited signs. There is only direction.
Yet, in the midst of all of this mixture of harmony and discord, our mission is to fully engage with the world and its problems, meaning that we engage further with each other in the complete understanding that this engagement will inevitably create more conflict. Yet, we do not shy away; we simply approach our interactions with a more pure vision of the world as it is.
We must start with this reality of the world – our limitations and our foundations and the sinuous curve of harmony and discord. However, as Alinsky notes, “that we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.” We must have a vision of where we would like to be as a human race grounded in the reality of where we currently find ourselves. That vision must include others.  
It is ultimately an “other-oriented” lens through which we must address our actions in life, a lens to be enhanced by the sacred and profound, not blinded by their radiance. It is a vision of religion as a path to God and in service to God through service to other human beings, not in spite of other human beings. Similarly, other lofty sentiments like democracy cannot merely be the ends for which human beings are the means.
The Simon and Garfunkel rendition illustrates this fault in instances when order becomes the ends by which civil rights are refused, or national security becomes the ends by which dignity is violated. The necessary vision must be that “the least of these” refers to each of us at one time or another. It is a vision that both oppressor and oppressed have to bear.
Alinsky writes, “In the world as it is there are no permanent happy or sad endings,” just a continuing appreciation for the beauty and struggle of human relationships and interactions.  “No man is an island,” proclaimed John Donne. At least, none should be – not in our successes, our failures, our ecstasies or our agonies. As human beings, we do have our moments of solitary experience. But the island paradise we seek is found in other human beings. Even when our personal melodies are ones of discord, they are symphonic with others in the world.
Alex Coccia is a junior Africana and Peace Studies major, and a Gender Studies minor. He appreciates late night conversations in the Siegfried Chapel.  He can be reached at acoccia@nd.edu
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.