This is my 50th birthday. Actually, it’s the eve of my birthday, but it’s almost here, so I’m staying up late to write something about it.
It will be a day like every other day here, full of work, busy with activities. But tonight, I think of home, and wonder if my decision to volunteer for this was the right one. I’m not just missing my birthday, I’m missing a year in the lives of my children, and all I have to show for it is a hope that I’m making a difference. So far, I see little evidence of change, or even the likelihood of it.
At times like these, I think of my personal heroes, who are mostly saints: people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Francis of Assisi, and of course Jesus Christ. Each of them died without seeing their hopes fulfilled, and often had moments of personal despair.
Albert Camus wrote a short piece on the miracle of Sisyphus, the Greek king damned to roll a stone uphill for eternity, due to his pride. In the ancient Greek legend, the gods condemned Sisyphus to Tartarus in Hades, commanding him to roll a boulder up to the top of a giant hill. Whenever Sisyphus got the stone close to the top, it would roll over him and roll down to the bottom of the hill. Camus said that the miracle wasn’t that the stone always managed to roll over Sisyphus and make him start over; no, to Camus, the miracle was that Sisyphus returned to the bottom to try again. To Camus, this was the human condition, and what ennobles us: despite humanity’s poor track record and lack of success, we go back and keep trying to improve ourselves. But the boulder still leaves its mark.
American represents so much to so many, both to Afghans and us Americans who are here. It represents the best and worst of all of humanity; who we are, what we can accomplish, the ideals of the entire world, all within our borders. From the highest skyscrapers to the drug-infested ganglands, from the sprawling Midwest farmlands to the impoverished migrant workers, we hold the good and bad together in tension. It’s not lost on the rest of the world - they see this, too.
I often here an Afghan Soldier say, in halting English, “America good!” It amazes me - often, it’s the only English phrase they know. Usually the Soldier saying it knows almost nothing about our country. They know American Soldiers, and know what America represents.
I hear this often as well in the talk of other American Soldiers who are here. They are proud of our country, and what it stands for. Most of them have accomplished a lot, and are shining examples of all that’s good about America: hard work bringing success, solid values, discipline, teamwork, sharing and caring citizens, willing to die for what they believe. It’s unfortunate that they represent less than 2% of our population. (Less than 2% of all Americans ever serve in the military.)
We have as much of an uphill battle at home in America as we do here in Afghanistan to make the dream of American become more of a reality. For now, my mission is here, trying to hang onto what hope I have in making some progress up the hill. When I get back to America, another hill awaits - I’ll work on it when I get there.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.