“A City So Big You Gotta’ Say It Twice”: A Reflection by Wajahat Ali and Ishmael Reed « GOATMILK: An intellectual playground edited by Wajahat AliPosted: September 11, 2011
“There’s no atheist in a foxhole,” the old saying goes. Death forces anyone to acknowledge their mortality, and any beliefs about an afterlife, but does that saying hold water today? What happens when we’re confronted with death?
The expression conjures up an image of the soldier with hands pressed together and eyes clenched shut, huddled in the foxhole. The expression seems to imply that everyone close to death makes their peace with God. That everyone confronts the reality that is God.
Certainly a century ago, the guilt of missing too many masses or dying without having confessed would be unbearable for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. But the church no longer has such a firm grip on our subconscious and metaphysical beliefs. Prayer as a reflex to death probably doesn’t happen for many 21st century Americans.
Yet there may still be something to that phrase, even if the soldier remains steadfastly atheist.
The nature of war is random, taking life from civilians and soldiers who are mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. No one can dodge a bullet. But if you are a soldier and you are to survive, survival depends on you, and on your realization of this fact. I mean, if God were in the business of saving, God would not want you to be sitting on your ass praying for the shell to miss with your eyes closed. You better be ready to jump out of the foxhole.
Human phobias and pathos are part of what make us human. Violence, fear, and trauma can be crippling. But even as hands shake and legs quiver, another part of us know what needs to be done – to call an ambulance, to pull out the rusty nail, to look away from the cliff, to keep running, to soldier on.
Sometimes we feel very intense things – horror, terror, pain, extreme boredom – that make us want to do nothing more than curl into a fetal ball, but in the same moment another part of us coldly and rationally knows what must be done. And we have the ability to choose to do the latter.
This all brings me to Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void1, an amazing story of survival under the most unlikely circumstances. Survival after Simpson believed death to be an inevitability.
The movie, with narration provided by the actual climbers and reenactments by actors, tells one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard. Simpson and his friend Simon Yates, with a friend waiting in base camp, are attempting to become the first climbers to scale the west face of Siula Grande in the Andes. They make it to the summit, but at the beginning of the descent, Simpson falls and suffers a severe break of his right leg, with the knee joint entirely destroyed and tibia coming up into the thigh.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there…They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
– James Agee, A Death in the Family