There’s a terrifying poem by Ilya Kaminsky called “We Lived Happily During the War.” It ends like this:

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

It’s that “(forgive us)” that gets me. As if living under money’s shelter is not just an unfair privilege but a shameful sin. A guilt we inherited.

Of course, maybe we lucked into the money, or maybe we worked hard for it. Maybe we didn’t vote for this particular disastrous ruler. Maybe we grew up a few streets over from the street of money.

Still, we whisper, forgive us.

Maybe we’re doing our best to end the war with opinion pieces and phone banks. Maybe an earnest grimace crosses our faces once or twice a day when we think of the carnage. Maybe we’ve scoured Wikipedia for answers (or binged a remarkably informative podcast, or gotten a PhD in international relations), as if knowledge is the same as empathy.

Still, we whisper, forgive us.

Maybe we reject that word “great” as propaganda. Maybe we’re living a bit less happily than we were before the war, and isn’t that really enough, when it comes to it? Maybe we point to all the wonderful things money has built, and we decide—if not out loud—that it’s somehow worth it.

Still, we whisper, forgive us.

Every time I read this poem, I want to drum up excuses for my comparably comfortable life. And often I decide that these excuses are all stupid and that I’m failing the world and God by not taking more drastic action.

Both of those impulses seem reasonable to me, and I think there might be something to the second one. But I don’t think either is what Kaminsky is asking of us.

Before we defend ourselves, before we join the mailing lists of a dozen justice-seeking organizations, Kaminsky encourages us to join that whispered chorus of “forgive us.” To recognize that the world as it’s currently structured is not just unequal but evil, and that we who live in relative safety and comfort cannot cleanse ourselves of that evil. To see in ourselves something like the Reformed notion of total depravity: a brokenness that transcends our individual choices and our own best efforts to improve. 

But total depravity has its corollary: a grace that operates beyond our control, that pools in the lowest places and overflows where we least expect it, that redeems the world using people we love and people we hate and sometimes even us.

In another, earlier poem, Kaminsky points to this grace:

Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

If the piety makes your eyes roll, you’re not alone: even Kaminsky’s syntax seems to contort in reluctance in that final line.

But I don’t get a soothing certainty of divine providence from this poem. I almost hear resignation—to exhaustion and to darkness, yes, but also to something that sounds ceaselessly even in silence.

2 Comments

  1. Alex Johnson

    I’ve been talking to my therapist about this: interrogating the paralyzing grip of “I’m not doing enough.” It’s hard to sit in this space you’ve described—recognizing the darkness, repenting, and taking actions that never seem to fix the problem/get rid of the guilt/outrun the evil. At least we have some company.

    Reply
  2. Phil Rienstra

    Powerful piece. Already, but also especially with the news from Afghanistan. I feel like this is the cycle I go through often, at varying speeds – ignorance, realization, frustration, desperation, resignation, then maybe hopefulness… and then back to ignorance. Or something along those lines.

    Reply

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