“We are living in a time of pervasive sleepwalking.”
I first read this quote back in 2000, and it has stayed embedded in my thoughts ever since. It speaks to the numbness we often feel in lives of complacency. The statement was attributed to the Greek 20th century poet, George Sefaris (circa 1939) in a book I read called Inventing Paradise by Edmund Keeley. It was an account of the so-called “generation of the 30s,” writers who cut their teeth during the years surrounding World War II in Greece, many from the exile to which they fled during the German invasion. It chronicled their activities and lifestyles through the war, the Greek occupation and the subsequent civil war. The book was primarily about Henry Miller and his friendship with many notable Greek nationalist poets, and it contained beautiful excerpts from some of their writings–many of which were not political in nature, but told the story of daily life in their homeland. George Sefaris was one of those poets. He spent much of his early life in exile, but later became a diplomat and was the first Greek to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963.
In reading the book, I found it very compelling that through writing so vividly about life as a Greek, poets like Sefaris tapped into common thoughts and hopes that transcend geography. Such is the way of poetry! Henry Miller wrote of George Sefaris that he “had begun to ripen into a universal poet–by passionately rooting himself into the soil of his people.”
So, why am I writing this now? On this, the eighth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country, I’m thinking about the pitfalls of freedom–how though we are jarred from our slumber, we often so quickly slip back into its complacency. I almost forgot about 9/11. Eight years ago we were riveted to our computers and radios at my office. The second plane hit the towers shortly after I got to work. By the time we got out of a scheduled client meeting, the towers were down. This week it’s been just a fleeting thought.
As I often do, I was looking through one of my old journals this week and found my notes from Inventing Paradise, including Sefaris’ quote, and I could clearly remember the vivid thought process surrounding Keeley’s description of that time period. I read the book in 2000, a year before the attacks of September 11th. In my journal entries, I recorded how accounts of the German occupation of Greece and the subsequent exile of many citizens reminded me that the only reason I can learn about some of the atrocities that occurred then is that those poets and statesmen survived. The stories of the ones who were murdered can only be pieced together, and some may never be told.
In 2001 we had the benefit of video cameras, cell phones, impromptu photographers and all that 21st century technology has to offer to record the events of 9/11. We have amazing collections of photos like those from the LIFE collection above documenting the heroism of so many. Still, some stories are only pieced together, and some may never be told. In these past eight years, the concerns, red or orange alerts and daily images of destruction have diminished. The shock and horror are not nearly as acute. And, though it’s colored much of our public and social policy, at times in the day to day it’s so forgettable.
My how freedom so easily settles into complacency of spirit. We live in the excess of a generation who has never known famine, lasting fear or often the sacrifice required by honor. My generation. September 11, 2001 only gave us a glimpse. Sadly enough, our freedom is often taken for granted because we only know how to be free. We’ve never experienced anything else. The events of 9/11 were the closest my generation has come to thinking our freedom was in real jeopardy–and even that jeopardy has turned more into an outrage and a springboard for the hot button issue du jour. When I read about the pervasive apathy or disillusionment associated with “generation X,” I wonder. What do we have to be disillusioned about? We’ve lived our whole lives in the lap of freedom’s luxury. Entrenched in freedom, I can so easily default to laziness, restlessness, and ingratitude–to being asleep to the things that really matter, to the responsibilities inherent in this place of freedom. George Sefaris’ observation of 70 years ago is telling. Have I become lulled by my excess, my good fortune to have been born free and my privelege to have been granted freedom for all my life? Have I settled again into slumber, into contentedly closing my eyes to the world and the stories I encounter each day? Am I sleepwalking through this life of freedom?