On April 19, 1987, the Los Angeles Times ran a commentary by my friend Mark Haunfelner. It was titled “A Hope Exists to ‘Cure’ the World” and it was an especially poignant and ambitious kind of hope in view of the fact that Mark had terminal cancer.
I found a yellowed clipping of Mark’s essay as I was sorting out my files yesterday, and I read it again, newly surprised by his eloquence. He was very near to his death, at the age of thirty-two, when he wrote down these thoughts.
But Mark was looking beyond his own life. He was deeply troubled about the state of the world, and he wanted to leave behind a helpful message, issue a plea that we make things better, and above all, to register a hope. Because a hope existed. And in present tense: exists.
“The fabric of life is precious beyond measure,” he wrote. “Against the backdrop of my thirty-two years, the evolution of this belief appears natural, having been nurtured by the humane and gentle example of my parents, teachers and friends. I could never fully comprehend the wisdom of this instruction until I was diagnosed eight months ago with terminal cancer. My immediate reaction to the discovery of cancer was one of personal grief and fear. With the passage of time, however, I find that I am troubled not so much by the thought of my mortality as by the fact that I have encountered it in a time and society that buzzes with the undercurrents of violence and self-destruction.”
Mark believed that the answer was to channel energy and resources towards peace instead of war. Maybe he was naive, but he spoke from a well of deep compassion. He was pained by the suffering and disregard for life he saw, and it seemed to him that our government was not taking measures to ameliorate these things, but focusing instead on military power. He referred to Albert Einstein’s observation that it was impossible to simultaneously build peace and prepare for war, and he noted with sadness that our society had chosen the latter. The race for military supremacy in the nuclear age was in Mark’s view a vicious cycle in which “military security” ultimately led humanity over the nuclear abyss.
Mark spoke of an “historic responsibility” to build a world beyond war, just as I believe he would have seen us as having an historic responsibility today to take measures to protect our planet from the devastating effects of climate change. He refused to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. He wrote:
“When I was told that I had only a short time to live, I faced a choice not unlike the one I believe we face as a society. I could assume a posture of resignation, thereby making the predicted outcome inevitable. Or, I could think and act “as if” an opportunity existed to heal myself. If I chose resignation, I know it would be impossible to live whatever time that remained to me in a meaningful and worthwhile way. I realized that I must think and act as a well person. Only in this way could I affirm the value of my own life and create the possibility for healing.”
Mark stood not in denial, but defiance. He intended to live as if he were going to live.
“Viewing the arms race and the erosion of respect for life from a very personal perspective, I am convinced that thinking and acting “as if” peace is possible is the best means available to achieve human reconciliation and healing in a world without war. Just as a cancer patient cannot defer the urgent and unfinished business of life, we cannot stand idly by hoping that the arms race and its accompanying moral amnesia will go away. All Americans need to begin today by constructing a personal vision of what their lives, and those of their neighbors, would be like if world peace became a reality. Imagining myself in a world without war is not unlike how I imagine I would feel if my cancer went into remission–joyful, blissful, and exhilarated, much as if I had returned home after a long and difficult journey.’
His cancer did not go into remission, but his message is still here, and his hope exists.
“The attainment of a true and lasting peace would free enormous human and material resources to accomplish America’s unfinished business of feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly and educating the young,” he wrote. “It would liberate the wellspring of kindness and generosity among Americans that enabled us to create and renew our singular experiment in self-government. America is a nation comprised of nations–we are the world in microcosm. That we have come so far in learning to live with one another suggests our great potential for building world peace.”
I felt a pang reading that last part, knowing that we are currently living under an administration that is doing all it can to undo that progress we have made in living together, and that instead of liberating” the wellspring of kindness and generosity” and renewing “our singular experiment in self-government” there are forces at play to undermine it all.
Mark issued a call to action:
“And so I appeal to you my fellow citizens–I appeal to you with whom I have so proudly shared in the life-affirming work of free people. Know that the hour grows late and that the life of the human race hangs in the balance. I appeal to you because I cannot control the course of the cancer that threatens my life, but I know as never before that life is better than death, and that we must not squander the miraculous gift of life existing on this planet. The perilous circumstances we have created display a momentum that will yield only to courageous and decisive action. In the wake of human suffering or great destruction, the need for healing and reconciliation is strong…The act of preserving and nurturing life is an expression of our deepest faith–the faith that we are one human family called to a higher purpose than selfishness and greed, the faith that we are a bridge of justice and freedom joining the work of our parents to the dreams of our children, the faith that, like Michelangelo’s Adam, we can reach across the cosmos and touch the hand of God.”
A higher purpose than selfishness and greed. Yes.
We must live as though we can make a difference. We must act as if we have hope, and in so doing build a basis for that hope, and make it real. I’m remembering my gentle friend today, his being so small against a challenge so vast, his hope so outrageous and brave.
A hope exists.