Behemoth in a Bathrobe: A Dialogue

I am that still, small voice -- inside, at the back -- that says, "I can." And I've pushed my way to the front, because, even a dozen years after 9/11, "the day everything changed," I'm hearing, "I can't." What has happened to us?
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This dialogue, between America and its conscience, was included in the anthology, "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times," and updated for the 10th anniversary edition, which is now available. Contributors include Vaclav Havel, Tony Kushner, Nelson Mandela, Bill Moyers, Desmond Tutu, among others. The editor is Paul Rogat Loeb.

BEHEMOTH: Huh? Wha--? Who's there?

VOICE: I am that still, small voice---inside, at the back---that says, "I can." And I've pushed my way to the front, because, even a dozen years after 9/11, "the day everything changed," I'm hearing, "I can't." What has happened to us? We need to talk.

BEHEMOTH: About what?

VOICE: Our spark. Our elan vital, our can-do spirit. America's unique quality---once upon a time---the quality that, just two hundred years after the nation's founding, put a man on the moon. We need to recover that spark..

BEHEMOTH: Who says it's gone?

VOICE: Well, look at us. We're consuming trash TV and "reality" shows that exalt humiliation, violence, sex---a tawdry reality to convey to our kids. After a stint of admiring real heroes, like the rescue workers of 9/11, we've reverted to the unreal kind---celebrities---who behave ever more moronically----

BEHEMOTH: I need a sandwich.

VOICE: ---and we're feeding our faces, far too much. Sure, with everything we're facing, we need distraction, but we've gotten silly. Meanwhile, vital issues get past us. Too many of us stayed passive when the Bush administration took us to war in Iraq and, shame of shame, into torture. We raised few peeps about Enron and other corporate scandals. We did raise our voices about the 2008 financial crash---with Occupy Wall Street---but then slunk back to our sofas. We sit out Congressional elections, then complain about a do-nothing Congress. We're in bad psychic shape. The behemoth is still in his bathrobe. We need to get a grip----

BEHEMOTH: Oh, look, a rerun of the Victoria's Secret documentary!

VOICE: All this mindless activity---we must become more mindful.

BEHEMOTH: What? Think more about more 9/11s? Think more about financial chaos, the planet being destroyed, about America's decline?

VOICE: Deep down, we know what's going on, don't we. Avoidance. A-void-ance.

BEHEMOTH: Where's my remote control?

VOICE: Ralph Waldo Emerson, early American thinker, in his essay "Self-Reliance"----

BEHEMOTH: Where is my remote control?

VOICE: I'm your remote control! Who must ask: Would you, if the walls came tumbling down, want to be caught watching women tumbling out of their underwear?


BEHEMOTH: No. But I don't like to think about walls tumbling down.

VOICE: Understandable, but we must---or be blindsided. Any terrorist, any declinist would be thrilled we've retreated to our bathrobe. Now: What are we avoiding?

BEHEMOTH: The still, small voice raises the very big thing. Fear.

VOICE: Yes, fear. Of the worst kind: of annihilation. Physical annihilation, financial annihilation, planetary annihilation. Capital-F fear, feeling like "zero at the Bone."

BEHEMOTH: Emily Dickinson.

VOICE: Yes, another early American.

BEHEMOTH: Keep talking.

VOICE: In our historical crises---the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars---there was fear, but we faced it together. But no matter: Feeling fear that's "zero at the Bone," the question becomes.....

BEHEMOTH: How to live.

VOICE: Yes, and live fully, not just exist. Realizing that most of humankind shares this fear may help.

BEHEMOTH: Sharing the fear is good, I suppose.

VOICE: Hard to bear is knowing that, given the easy access to munitions and all the world's rage, which seems to be metastasizing, this fear will be with us forever----

BEHEMOTH: I feel like I'm on the Titanic heading for the iceberg!

VOICE: So, what to do, what to do?

BEHEMOTH: Reduce the fear, for starters. But what concrete steps can we take?

VOICE: What's been our theme here?

BEHEMOTH: Mindfulness. But that's not a concrete step.

VOICE: On the contrary! In this carnival of fear, to question, to protest, to think---and think clearly---is capital-A Action. Question the use of labels---"good," "evil"---but don't be afraid to apply them when needed. Question premises, motives---Main Street must get much better at questioning Wall Street and the politicians in its pocket. And question any administration's resorting to "national security" as justification for use of force, for snooping and spying on us----

BEHEMOTH: ---and don't let our fear be manipulated. History is replete with people manipulated by fear, which is why so much history is tragic.

VOICE: Brilliant!

BEHEMOTH: But, is it too late to act?

VOICE: Who knows, but we Americans must learn to live in our new world, not retreat. Harness the fear and use it. Live with questions as well as answers---in a word, accept complication. Learn self-critique---vital for a behemoth. Get over our narcissism---and come together again, as we did once upon a time. And understand that, while our security is gone, it was an illusion, and isn't life better without illusion? This is our opportunity to mature. In fact, metaphysically, this could lead to an American existentialism---yes!---taking action in a hostile universe----

BEHEMOTH: Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Tell me: Will we ever laugh again?

VOICE: Our easy smile has gone, but an earned one will come. Our work is not about grimness, but passion.

BEHEMOTH: Let's keep talking. I find this dialogue bracing, in fact---this is antique vocabulary---tonic, inspiriting.

VOICE: Favorite words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, to close our loop: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind." Now, about the bathrobe: Shall we suit up.....?

The earlier version of this dialogue appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.


Carla Seaquist, a playwright, published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Her forthcoming book of commentary, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is due out soon. An earlier book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," came out in 2009.

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