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Brutal Hearts

In 1922, as the Irish Civil War raged outside, William Butler Yeats was trapped with his wife and daughter in Thoor Ballylee, his County Galway farmhouse built out of a small castle tower. Bridges were blown up, roads blocked, and newspapers halted. Though a man of eloquent political opinion, the months of explosions, gunfire and dead young men had soured Yeats on the cause. He writes, “We are closed in, and the key is turned/ On our uncertainty; somewhere/ A man is killed, or a house burned,/ Yet no clear fact to be discerned.” From his castle tower, he watched cars pass with upended coffins between the seats. By the time he records that “Last night they trundled down the road/ That dead young soldier in his blood,” it no longer matters to him whether it was a pro- or anti-Anglo-Irish treaty fighter. (Yeats himself had favored the treaty).

Yeats finds consolation in nature: the starlings (called stares in Galway) that built nests on his tower window, and the bees that invaded the cracks in the loosening mortar; when the starlings fledge and depart, he regrets the loss of this small bit of cheer, and prays the bees to fill their nest.

In the last verse of “The Stare’s Nest by My Window” he reflects, as only a man in extremis can, on his family’s entrapment: “We had fed the heart on fantasies,/ The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;/ More Substance in our enmities/ Than in our love; O honey-bees,/ Come build in the empty house of the stare.”

It’s that line about there being more substance in our enmities than in our love that has obsessed me since I read the poem. I know that feeling within my self, and I see it around me.

In a sermon a few years ago, I reminded my congregation that though there was war and retribution in the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus, with his “you have heard it said but now I say to you,” effected a sort of reversal: he talked of, then demonstrated, radical forbearance. “We may need war at times,” I said, “but we must never rush toward it or glorify it, for the only way to justify war is if the tears that would be shed if we didn’t fight exceed the tears shed if we do; and those are sums we’ll never calculate accurately short of heaven.”

Few, in a usually appreciative congregation, commented on what I thought was an important Biblical teaching. But one man stepped close to me at the church door, nose to nose, and said, in a voice of suppressed rage, “I hate the Iraqis. If I were a younger man, I would personally go over there and shoot every Iraqi I could — right here,” and he chillingly pressed his index finger on the center of my forehead.

“More substance in our enmities than in our love” — and the rest of it holds true, too, for it comes of feeding our hearts on fantastic oversimplifications: that all of the enemy are hating and hateful; that enemy mothers’ love for their children doesn’t deserve the consideration that our mothers’ does; that no one there values peace and well-being as we do; that our danger from them is greater than their danger from us; that they are monolithic in their wish to destroy us, so justifying our scattering death indiscriminately among them.

We work backward to the source of these unexamined prejudices: human brutality comes from within us. The enmity between ourselves and Satan (Genesis 3:15) burst its banks and spread, as water from a ruptured levee, across our moral landscape. In Lion in Winter, Eleanor of Aquitaine says to her murderous sons, “Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten.”

Most of us don’t recognize ourselves there: we’re not, we’d say, as hateful as all that; yet war continues, and if our hatreds aren’t responsible, our apathy may be. Just because, according to Jesus, we will never see war’s end (Matthew 24:6), doesn’t get us off the hook.

Adds Eleanor: “For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.”

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