Last night I watched a documentary on Robert Kennedy. It was a good film screened with an unexpected personal consequence: softness. I can’t explain it exactly. I just started acting all emotional and sensitive. I was feeling all touchy and weird and squishy – like I needed to drive to the nearest grocery store and put all of the shopping carts back, kiss a kitten, or start recycling. I’m a Marine, and feelings like this just aren’t good for business.
I needed something that would shake this new-found compassion out of me. I headed for my scotch cabinet, had a liberal pouring to match my liberal pourings and picked up a book on global espionage and retired CIA agent Bob Baer’s expedition throughout Southwest Asia in the mid-1990s. Something like this usually does the trick, lots of girls, lots of guns. Lots of other things. But somewhere between tales of isolated Russian outposts and rouge Taliban fighters, Baer revealed a unique place far and away in the world – the Soghdiana. It was an unpredictably beautiful tale (damn). And I was stuck. And I did what comes natural…nothing. And kept on reading. And kept on drinking. And kept on reading. And drinking…
Baer’s story describes the inhabiting tribe, the Yaghnobi, as unique in that they are predominantly Muslim but instead of praying toward Mecca they pray facing the highest peak, which they consider the jumping off point to heaven. Cradled by some of the most remarkable mountains in the world, theirs must seem a true kingdom of heaven.
The Yaghnobi believe that they’ve been sheltered from three millennia of strife, famine, war and disease by the glaciers and mountains that surround them. And so far their tribe’s traditions have survived despite global revolutions of industry, technology and information and even the implacable tides of war.
By Western standards, the Yaghnobi are primitive. They have no monuments commemorating the discovery of new worlds, no memorials to those who have inspired change through art or music, no shrines to generals or deities. The Yaghnobi don’t even have running water or electricity – to say nothing of education or modern medicine. This strikes me as tragic.
After some thought, and some time (at this moment) spent away from the din of hands-free cell phones, octuplets, and apart from the new world reality of Al Sadr’s militias and Zimbabwe’s 2,000 percent inflation rate, I admit with a healthy respect – it must be nice to have such a pleasingly simple world view.
In the West we celebrate an individual’s pluck and a society’s evolution: exploration, social and economic progress, personal liberties, collective freedoms, creative genius, risk taking, courage and creativity of all kinds.
In the West we look at the Yaghnobis’ mountain peak and wonder “what lies beyond?” That’s always been our perspective—to look beyond. This must be the perspective of a people constantly on guard, constantly at war. In the complexity of our “mountain” we have forged a distinct national character.
The Yaghnobi see the very same mountain peak and ask what lies within. Theirs is the perspective of a people removed from history’s revolutions and war’s tides. In the simplicity of their mountain-perspective they’ve forged a remarkable cultural oasis.
I celebrate the varied cultural threads of our national fabric, which is, by the Framers’ design, complex. This complexity—this elegant untidiness—is what Whitman so aptly referred to as America’s “athletic democracy.” Our society has been deeply enriched by many diverse cultures, but remains, at its core, Western.
Ours is a unique Republic firmly rooted in the rule of law, individual liberties, an independent judiciary, a representative legislature, secularism, the free market and also (let’s be honest), Reality TV, Monday Night Football and a good cup of Starbucks coffee. As such, I think there’s an important lesson to be learned from the Yaghnobi.
Every day we all struggle to climb our own personal mountain. We struggle with what best course to take in life — things like how best to support our children and ageing parents, pay off our credit cards, keep our marriages or relationships intact and our jobs in place…and other things like how to be decent people and happy.
As Marines, it’s not only combat itself we struggle with, but also the choices we’re forced to make in life’s battle. This Fight (capital F) binds. These are our mountains. We’ve been bred as warriors to relish that life is a struggle and that mountains were not made to be prayed to or sat before – but that mountains were made to be climbed.
The Yaghnobis’ world suggests different; that we may be able to succeed without so much struggle — or that we might at least benefit by taking the occasional pause. Of course this requires that we redefine what we mean by “succeed.” We’ll never get very far when their “pause” means our “regret” and their “exhale” means our “weakness.”
No matter the definition, I think that what we are to learn from the Yaghnobi relates to our identity and how we lead our lives. We are to learn that adding some “pause” to our diet will boost the individual and collective “hunger” we so celebrate, not curb it. We are to learn that if, from time to time, we take a break between mountains to ask questions of each other and ourselves, we might just discover an even greater strength that lies within…something I think the politicians on both aisles-sides are sorting out as we speak…that no matter if ours is a mountain of hope or a mountain of bullshit, or, quite frankly, a mountain of both – that the mountain is ours for the climbing. And a great mountain is best climbed after a greater pause.