An Openness to Life: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dag Hammarskjöld on Love, Failure, and What It Means to Be Yourself
“Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situation of others.”
By Maria Popova
Months after his death in a plane crash while traveling to negotiate a ceasefire during the budding civil war in Congo, the Swedish diplomat, economist, and author Dag Hammarskjöld (July 29, 1905–September 18, 1961) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld became one of only two people in history awarded the Nobel posthumously. John F. Kennedy considered him the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.
Hammarskjöld left behind a most unusual manuscript, eventually published as Markings (public library) — a compendium of reflections and poems constellating a luminous record of one person’s struggle for a foothold of meaning, radiating universal human truth. Partway between young Tolstoy’s diaries, Walt Whitman’s prose meditations, and artist Ann Truitt’s journals, these fragments of thought and feeling embody what it means for a person who has devoted their life to moral action to also have a rich inner life of contemplation — the rare, bountiful marriage of via activa and via contemplativa, as W.H. Auden observes in his admiring foreword to the book. Hammarskjöld contemplates love, justice, devotion, morality, and empathy, united by a larger inquiry into the nature of being, which he explores through the relationship between self and other, self and world, self and self-containing consciousness.
Writing at the peak of WWII, as he is still orienting himself in his own sense of purpose, thirty-six-year-old Hammarskjöld examines the interplay of emotion and the intellect in how we relate to ourselves and to others:
Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situation of others. What is necessary? — to wrestle with your problem until its emotional discomfort is clearly conceived in an intellectual form — and then act accordingly.
In another entry from the same period, Hammarskjöld considers the dignity in our human capacity for devoting ourselves to the improbable, the unreasonable, that which is bound to break our own hearts:
It makes one’s heart ache when one sees that a man has staked his soul upon some end, the hopeless imperfection and futility of which is immediately obvious to everyone but himself. But isn’t this, after all, merely a matter of degree? Isn’t the pathetic grandeur of human existence in some way bound up with the eternal disproportion in this world, where self-delusion is necessary to life, between the honesty of the striving and the nullity of the result? That we all — every one of us — take ourselves serious is not merely ridiculous.
Four years later, Hammarskjöld echoes young Borges’s insistence on the illusoriness of the self and probes the crux of our self-delusion:
At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the elector and the elected. Only one — which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.
Nowhere does our overinvestment in the I swell to more self-harming proportions than in our relationship with other I’s to whom we feel bound by the threads of deep and demanding emotion — threads on which we pull greedily, unreasonably, unlatching the inevitable Rube Goldberg machine of unmeetable expectation, disappointment, and heartbreak. More than half a century before Hilton Als considered the art of receptivity at the heart of love, Hammarskjöld reflects:
When you have reached the point where you no longer expect a response, you will at last be able to give in such a way that the other is able to receive, and be grateful. When Love has matured and, through a dissolution of the self into light, become a radiance, then shall the Lover be liberated from dependence upon the Beloved, and the Beloved also be made perfect by being liberated from the Lover.
Hammarskjöld finds that what mitigates this tension of need between self and self is a surrender to the relationship between self and nature. “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on,” Whitman exulted in contemplating what gives life meaning, “[and] have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.” Generations after Whitman, Hammarskjöld writes:
So rests the sky against the earth. The dark still tarn in the lap of the forest. As a husband embraces his wife’s body in faithful tenderness, so the bare ground and trees are embraced by the still, high, light of the morning.
I feel an ache of longing to share in this embrace, to be united and absorbed. A longing like carnal desire, but directed towards earth, water, sky, and returned by whispers of the trees, the fragrance of the oil, the caresses of the wind, the embrace of water and light. Content? No, no, no — but refreshed, rested — while waiting.
In another entry, he considers what it takes to surrender ourselves to Nature’s embrace:
The extrahuman in the experience of the greatness of Nature. This does not allow itself to be reduced to an expression of our human reactions, nor can we share in it by expressing them. Unless we each find a way to chime in as one note in the organic whole, we shall only observe ourselves observing the interplay of its thousand components in a harmony outside our experience of it as harmony.
Landscape: only your immediate experience of the detail can provide the soil in your soul where the beauty of the whole can grow.
Like Whitman, Hammarskjöld saw this harmony between humanity and the natural world as inseparable from, and in some deep sense essential for, the harmony within the human world, between human beings. Two years into his post as Secretary-General of the United Nations, he writes:
Salty and wind-swept, but warm and glittering. Keeping in step with the measure under the fixed stars of the task. How many personal failures are due to a lack of faith in this harmony between human beings, at once strict and gentle.
In his fiftieth year, Hammarskjöld echoes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel’s poignant lament about the loneliness of leadership and reflects:
For him who has responded to the call of the Way of Possibility, loneliness may be obligatory.
That year, Hammarskjöld records a kind of personal resolution, governed by the humanistic ideals that became the animating ethos of his public life:
To remain a recipient — out of humility. And preserve your flexibility.
To remain a recipient — and be grateful. Grateful for being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand.
Markings is a singular and singularly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Nobel laureate André Gide’s rules of moral conduct and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being.
Published February 15, 2018