Traces N. 3, March 2019

The Ideal that Conquers Life

It takes courage to talk about “something to start from.” The world seems so confused, so “liquid” around us, that even thinking we can find firm ground to start from to face the problems surrounding us–both great and small–seems impossible, seems like wishful thinking. “There is no ideal for which we can sacrifice ourselves, because all we know are lies, we who do not know what the truth is,” wrote the great French author André Malraux. And to some degree this is true: ideas and theories are no longer of any use; they pale in comparison to the facts. Therefore, to use the word “start,” and to do so as a suggestion, a proposal for everyone as a common way forward, requires great courage, because in testing such a proposal, we cannot cheat.

This was the challenge of the New York Encounter, three days of talks, exhibits, and performances centered on this theme. It was a small drop of water amidst the vast stream of life in a city like New York, and was even smaller if you zoom out to situate that little drop on a map of the US or, even more, of the world. Yet there, over those three days, something happened that is significant for everyone, not only because of the style and depth of the content presented, both of which were objectively out of the ordinary, and not only because of the spirit that made such a gathering possible, unusual in that it all started from a group of friends and is sustained by the work of 400 volunteers. It was significant because of its method. There were no theories of perfect systems about how to escape all the crises that entangle us in economics, politics, education, and human relationships…no, it offered just the facts. Witnesses were present who “infected” everyone entering the Metropolitan Pavilion who had a curious eye, whether they were famous or just ordinary people. Like the case of the young man working in security for the building who, listening carefully at the back of a hall during a meeting, moved closer until he asked if he could speak about his own experience. Or like David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times, who surprised everyone in one of the weekend’s biggest events by speaking about himself and the path that, through great suffering, helped him discover that his abilities, his success, were not enough, and what he really needed is “a heart that seeks another and a soul that seeks the good.” These were stories capable of speaking to the irreducible needs for beauty, justice, and fullness we all cannot help carrying inside us.

There is always something to start from, or restart from. It is the heart, our hearts. This Traces is dedicated to this irreducible hope. It embarks on a journey to find the “answer to [our] desire for happiness and meaning,” a journey that Pope Francis proposed to everyone in his message to the organizers of the Encounter. Happy reading, and have a good journey.