I am the bird that flutters against your window in the morning,
And your closest friend, whom you can never know,
Blossoms that light up for the blind.
I am the glacier shining over the woods, so pale,
and the heavy voices from the cathedral tower.
The thought that suddenly hits you in the middle of the day
And fills you with joy.
I am the one you have loved for many years.
I walk beside you all day and look intently at you
And put my mouth against your heart
Though you’re not aware of it.
I am your third arm, and your second
Shadow, the white one,
Whom you cannot accept,
And who can never forget you
Guardian Angel, Rolf Jacobsen
"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes back into you." Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
Punta Rosa. The peak of the Rose. Grand Paradiso, Italy. 3700 meters. I am paralysed yet so close. I stand on the last summit ridge. This cutting, unreliable, stairway of ancient rocks hiding a statue of Mary, the Madonna, and a Cross made of wires. On my left, 1000 metres below, inviting, soothing, glorious meadows, a soft carpet of evanescent wild flowers. On my right, another long drop reaches the soft body of a white glacier, “La Grivola”, the lady, the blinding beauty of those early hours.
My legs are heavy with fear. What am I doing here? Heart pounding, thoughts circling. What if I fall? I am alone. The whole world is watching. Should I turn back? I can’t even see the top, I can’t see where I am going. I am a husband and a father now. I should not be on that mountain. I should have known better. I should stick to the signalled path.
I often feel I am walking on this ridge these days. Precipice on both sides, feeling all but surefooted, uncertainty all round. Economics, politics, technology, family, friends, my own thoughts and emotions: everything feels so transient and fragile. I worry for my son and the world he is walking into. And I see in the eyes of our leaders, the ones who should know better, the same paralysis: no sense of direction, no sight of the summit, everyone guided by the fragile vertigo of power, seduced by the great free fall on either side of the debate.
We used to have family around, lifelong friends and colleagues, companions on our side. We also used to have clear enemies, the unruly boss, the Soviets, the other side. We felt safe at home. At least we had a home. Now it feels so random and chaotic, we live in a state of permanent guerrilla warfare with most of the combat happening “online”, that disembodied battlefield. We are confused, paralyzed, alone, unsure of where to go next. Who is the enemy on that ridge? And who will give me refuge, strength and hope?
Donald Trump embodies extreme vertigo and paralysis, the temptation of the abyss. He is asking us to trust him and jump. The whole thing is a disaster anyway. We feel like jumping even if we hate him, perhaps even more so. Should I retreat to the fields of abundance below? The sirens of virtual reality, online shopping, global circling, too free and busy to ever meet? Should I join closed communities, plant a flag in pure white solid blocks of ice, cracks hiding below the surface? Trump is a warning. A reckoning that the temptation of the abyss lives in all of us. The real danger for ourselves, our communities and our world is to give up and jump off, splitting apart beyond repair.
Life calls us forward on that ridge, with no parachute. We are alone with our confusion, our fears, our choices, responsible for our next steps. And that very first step requires us to acknowledge our shadow, feel those fears deeply, if we stand a chance to transcend them and experience what lies beyond.
Yet we will need more to move ahead. We will need a light, an inspiration. The fleeting murmur of the soaring eagle, gliding serene and unseen above our heads and paralysed thoughts. This quiet presence on our side. Our white shadow. If Trump demands an urgent reckoning with our dark side, who will offer us the gift of light?
Up on that ridge, as I allowed myself to feel fear, to be present to it, to welcome it, an image came in sight. A snow leopard came, slowly walking towards me. Or perhaps I was the one finally walking to him. This powerful, elegant, elusive, dangerous beast, ambivalent to me as I am to him, dressed of white with patches of black. I have never seen a snow leopard in the wild. Very few people ever have. He lives mostly in the high mountains of Central Asia but perhaps even more intensely in people’s imagination. A myth, a legend, a spirit, a mystery.
A decade ago I did witness his presence. I had the privilege of walking several days in Northern Pakistan, and I saw his footprints carved in the snow. His spirit has haunted me ever since. Now his sudden appearance on that final ridge of Punta Rosa took hold of me. Powerful and graceful, light and grounded. The ridge his playground, my playground. I started dancing. One awkward step found an instinctual response in the spring forth of a counter step, the messy choreography of life. Fear did not disappear but fuelled an intense presence and focus. I did not want to be anywhere else. Every step, every note, held my life together.
As I finally acknowledged and welcomed my fears, their hold on me receded; the tired radio loops of my ego fell into the background. My imagination opened to the moment and the faint melody of my soul took over. As I let the fear go and let the inspiration come, my spirit lifted, my body transformed, my actions changed. I heard the music, I became a different instrument. I was the snow leopard and I started dancing on the ridge of life. I was free.
Only quiet steps and welcoming presence allowed the snow leopard to appear that day. But this was a rare moment of grace. I long for those and a life lived on this ridge, edging ever closer to the summit, to Mary, to the Cross. Free from my fears, true to my soul. Can one live his whole life in such freedom?
THE SNOW LEOPARD
“They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. Never lets itself be seen. Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
A few weeks after seeing the footprint of the snow leopard in Northern Pakistan, I eventually left the Karakorum mountains and reached Peshawar, the frontier town, the gateway to Afghanistan. Weapons, fake money, drugs, there is much intrigue and darkness there. There is also much life, buzzing markets, disarming hospitality and kindness. One day walking down the city’s narrow streets, I stopped in a small clothing shop. I bought a hat, the traditional Pakul of the Mujahedeen, the inner struggler. In hindsight, I know now that my trip back then had much to do with inner struggle. The shopkeeper told me I looked like Commander Massoud. I smiled.
I had heard about Massoud before. I knew him to be a legendary Afghan fighter killed by Al-Qaeda two days before the World Trade Centre towers fell on September 11th 2001, two days before a new era began for our world. Putting on this hat started my journey to him, the one many called the “Lion of the Panjshir", to me the closest human incarnation of the snow leopard, the possibility of light for our age.
Massoud’s call to leadership started with the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. At a young age, he became one of the main leaders of the resistance movement, fighting from his native region of the Panjshir. A beautiful valley of green fertile fields North East of Kabul, fed by the raging waters of the river Panjshir and surrounded on all sides by the great mineral towers of the Hindu Kush. In this forbidden region, Massoud’s troops eventually became the only force still standing against Soviet power.
Heading a make-up army of farmers, Massoud showed remarkable skills for guerrilla warfare. The most powerful army in the world at the time never managed to crush his resistance. Relentless aerial bombing, indiscriminate killings of innocents, numerous assassination attempts, nothing tamed the spirit of Massoud and the Mujahedeen. Massoud kept walking on the edge of death and won. The Red Army left Afghanistan in 1993. The Wall Street Journal called him “the Afghan who won the cold war”.
Freedom was not won however. As Massoud entered Kabul, internal divisions and foreign interventions brought chaos. After four years of desperate attempts to create national unity, fearing for the life of civilians as battle raged in the streets of Kabul, he retreated back to the mountains. The Taliban and religious obscurity took over the country. Massoud and the Panjshir resisted again as the sole beacon of light.
The ideological enemy this time had a religious face. Again, Massoud organised resistance against the odds with little support from the West. Americans, Europeans, privately admiring his courage, were perhaps wary of how little control they could exert on someone of such unusual integrity, so furiously independent, whose freedom and therefore allegiance seemingly could not be bought.
In April 2001, the President of the European parliament did invite Massoud to Strasbourg. There he spoke of his people’s struggle against religious extremism, and warned George W. Bush of its shadow spreading to the western world if he and his allies were not supported. The result was more private praise, polite smiles and no action. Several months later, two planes flew above Manhattan.
Many will read Massoud’s life as the classical hero tale, the military genius who, at least for a while, defeated the empires of the day. They will recognise him as another reckless spirit who won a battle but eventually lost the war against the great forces of history. The Afghan Che Guevara, like many have coined him. Yet I believe Massoud represented something entirely different; that his legacy joins much deeper sources. A secret fountain from which flows forces capable of transcending all barriers: political, social, religious, space, time.
THE SECRET FOUNTAIN
“Where is the door to God?
In the sound of a barking dog,
In the ring of a hammer,
In a drop of rain,
In the face of everyone I see”
Massoud walked freely between worlds, with his feet firmly on the ground. He fought and lived on some of the greatest fault lines of modern history. He stood as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world even though he was never supported by the main forces on either side. He was deeply spiritual and observant of Islam’s key tenants. At the same time, he had a vision for a free, democratic Afghanistan, inclusive of all ethnic diversities, respectful of human rights, including those of women. He wanted Afghan boys and girls to study, to be part of this world and stand a chance to shape it, to express their full potential as unique individuals. But he also wanted them to understand and respect the gifts of their unique roots and tradition, to belong to this land. There was no contradiction.
Massoud struggled against two of the most brutally divisive ideologies of the 20th and 21st century: one political, one religious. Yet his answer to ideologies was not to propose another one. He was never tempted by the abyss, by the sanctity of a manifesto, by the purity of mental abstractions. He fought ideologies precisely because he knew they would crush people’s souls. Whether drawn by man or by God, he saw them as impersonal rules and systems bound to produce inhuman consequences. Massoud cared first about the person in front of him, about serving life here and now.
In Marcela Grad’s extraordinary book, “Massoud: Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader”, in which she brings together the voices of the people who intimately knew him, stories after stories recount Massoud’s ability to be simply human in the middle of the worst atrocities. He treated his prisoners better than his own men, took as much time to listen to the powerful as he did for the child or the small farmers that came to him. He kept believing in the innate goodness of people, forgiving his worst enemies and the many “allies” who betrayed him.
He believed peace would ultimately not come from victories in the battlefield nor even in his relentless efforts to build schools and hospitals in the middle of war. Those were only the outcome of a deeper, more personal struggle. He knew true reconciliation happened within, through one’s inner life and every day actions; by being true to his deeper human values, to his soul, in every decision he made and with every person he met. The Jihad in its truest sense, before alienation and rage robbed us of its true meaning.
Perhaps more than military victories, this consistency in all actions, large or small, had a profound influence on the people who followed him and often on the ones who fought him. They wanted to be better human beings for him, for one another. These actions were the foundations from which trust could grow and spread between people, friends or enemies, and the fertile soil from which strong institutions and a peaceful society would grow.
Massoud’s struggle and wisdom are timeless, with roots reaching deep into the ancient past, with branches extending far into our collective future. They are boundless extending way beyond Afghanistan or the Muslim world. They are about love, not in the abstract nor romantic, but in the most personal. Love in the middle of darkness, where it is truly tested and when it is at its most transformative. They are about freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from hate, in the face of constant violence and betrayals.
The timeless and boundless resonance of his life and message comes across in what is for me the most touching story from Marcela Grad’s book. This story came from someone who never met him. Someone raised within an entirely different tradition. Someone as removed from the harsh realities of history as he was deeply involved in them; a contemplative nun in Europe who one day saw a picture of him as a young commander. For the next 25 years, she prayed for him. Her words illuminate the power of Massoud’s legacy and the challenge ahead of us:
“To think of Ahmad Shah Massoud is to touch the mystery of how death can bring life: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of faith." Such a dying is the work of a lifetime. There were countless moments of death during the twenty years, that he struggled for his faith, his people, his land… Endless hours tramping through frozen ravines in the winter and over blistering boulders in the summer. Never to spend the night in the same cave or hut. Watching the jaws of war devour one friend after another.
From what secret fountain did his strength flow? The West can scarcely understand him, however awed we may feel before such sacrifice, before the incredible smile of a man who had a vision of freedom so different from our own. The secret way is closed to many because the mystery of a world beyond this one no longer lives in the Western heart.
Massoud is no Che Guevara; he was not interested in a war that results in mere social restructuring. No, Massoud made his own the struggle of God, the struggle for true freedom in the heart of man. Too often man defines freedom in terms of freedom "from...." Massoud knew it as freedom "for." For? For what? Ultimately for God. Yet one never seeks God without finding in His eyes every other man and woman, without discovering a brother in the face of every child.
To understand Massoud one must touch his world: the face of a small child orphaned by a Russian bomb, the beautiful rushing waters of the Panjshir, the well-worn pages of the Koran. The true struggle for freedom is won when we are free for one another. That is why this man could evoke such confidence from the hearts of his people: they knew he had given himself totally to them; not to a faceless amalgam of the proletariat, but to this man, this child, this woman.
"I am fighting for your liberty." Will we know how to use it? Will we again believe enough in the world around us to rise up and give ourselves to our brothers and sisters, and yes, ultimately to God? The death of martyrs is the seed of faith.”
Massoud read poetry to his troops while bombs fell around them. Death surrounding him, he never forgot to be free. He never forgot to be human. He never forgot the light. And the light never forgot him. Sufis, the practitioners of the mystical branch of Islam, talk about the practice of “Remembrance” as the most sacred of all tasks. Remembering God’s presence in every moment, in everything, in everyone, even or perhaps especially, when life pushes us to the edge. Remembering the life and presence of Massoud is one of those doorways to the eternal.
THE PROMISED LAND
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”
The Taliban never managed to defeat Massoud in battle and despite the immense suffering, the love of his people for him never faltered. Yet eventually Massoud was killed. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda could not allow the emergence of a leader of the stature of Massoud for Afghanistan and the Muslim world. They predicted an American invasion after the attacks. They saw US troops entangled in the Afghan chaos like so many before them, sowing the seeds of anger and mayhem across the Muslim and Western world. The war of civilisation. Massoud stood in the way.
The snow leopard was hunted down, the great towers fell, the war on terror began, the war with no end. And the plot continues to unfold today. In the end, if you believe that story line, Massoud’s struggle came to nothing. Afghanistan in chaos, Iraq, Syria, ISIS, suicide bombings, millions of refugees, Trump, climate change, failing springs in the Arab world, whole societies splitting apart, a profound crisis of leadership and vision, fragmented, polarised, confused, paralysed, muscles hardening on that ridge. This is the story told, the story we create for ourselves and our world.
A few months before walking on that ridge in Italy, I came across a different kind of story. Buried inside an hour-long interview, I heard the beautiful, ancient voice of Rachel Naomi Remen, an author, physician and professor of Medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. Rachel Naomi Remen, is another one of those individuals walking with grace on the edge of life. She helps cancer patients find the strength and courage to explore, feel and uncover the unique story at the origin of their disease. She believes those same stories contain in themselves the sources of healing and redemption, when all is or seem lost.
Rachel Naomi Remen is herself a wonderful story teller. She combines stories from her work in medicine with ancient tales from her Jewish background. Her grandfather was a Rabbi and a mystic who had a profound influence on her. And at the very end of her second book called “My Grandfather’s Blessing” comes one of the most well-known stories of our civilisation. A story of alienation, fear and eventually freedom; the story of the Exodus retold so we might uncover its true meaning:
“Thousands and thousands of years ago the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. Like slaves everywhere, they suffered greatly and they had a dream of freedom. Their leader, Moses, spoke to God about this dream and the terrible suffering and God encouraged him to go to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and tell him to let the Jewish people go. Not surprisingly, Pharaoh refused. (…) Finally God sends the angel of death to take the firstborn son of every Egyptian family. This is too much even for the hard heart of the Pharaoh, and he tells Moses that the Jews are free to go.
"Is that the end of the story Grandpa?" I asked. "No" he said gently, "actually it is only the beginning" (…) "What happened next?" I asked. He smiled at my impatience. "Well, Moses brings the news of their freedom to the rest" he told me. "Are they very happy, Grandpa?"
"No, Neshume-le, they are not. They told Moses that they did not want to go. They asked many questions. Where are we going? Who will feed us? Where will we sleep? Moses was deeply surprised. He could not answer any of these questions and he did not know what to do. How could he tell God that after all that He had done to make freedom possible, the people did not want to go?"
I was surprised, too. "But they were suffering, Grandpa. Why didn't they want to go?" My grandfather looked sad. "They knew how to suffer" he told me. "They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free (…) Very begrudgingly they leave their homes and go out into the desert. There is no food there, there is no water. And they live there for forty years"
I was shocked. "But what about the Promised Land, Grandpa? Wasn't it true?"
"Yes, it was true, Neshume-le, but the choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown"
"But how can they live without food and water?" I asked in distress.
"They have God, Neshume-le" my grandfather said softly. "Every morning God rains Manna down from heaven and the people eat it. By noon it has evaporated. Every night they shelter beneath the great wing of His presence. Day after day they worry and doubt and day after day God is there. After forty years, even the most doubting of them had learned that God can be trusted. And then they come to the Promised land" (…)
But Moses never got to the Promised Land, and I just couldn't understand it (…) I asked him why, after all that he had done, God had not given Moses his reward. "Well, Neshume-le" he said, "what makes you think this?" I was puzzled. In the story he had told me, after all his hard work Moses only got to see the Promised Land and to watch the others go there. Everyone else had been given their dream. It didn't seem fair to me.
When I told this to my grandfather, he smiled. "But Moses did get his dream" he said. "Moses was a leader, Neshume-le, and a leader always has a different dream from the others:' (…) "Moses's dream was for his people to be free. And so his reward was that he got to see that happen. Because he was a leader, his dream was different from the dreams of the people, Neshume-le. A real leader has the same dream that God has."
Many will believe Massoud did not achieve his dream, that he did not see a free Afghanistan, the promised land of his people, freedom in our hearts. Yet seeing September 9th 2001 as the end of the story, as Massoud’s failure, is a failure of our own imagination. Today Massoud’s influence on our collective history is as invisible and yet as potentially powerful and mysterious as the presence of the snow leopard in the high mountains of Afghanistan. His true legacy and spirit have yet to reach us.
As we stand alone on that final ridge, when all seems lost, when we are lost, captive, petrified of the unknown, could be the moment when all is left to do is to let our eyes, our ears and our souls break open. Amongst all the chaos and noise in and around us, as the abyss calls, Massoud stands besides us quietly, with his fierce compassionate eyes, his soft beautiful smile, waiting to witness and rejoice of our first step forward.
In acting true to his soul every step of the way, dancing on the sharpest of all ridges, the jaws of war, Massoud the man, the myth, opens for us another way, another story. A story of freedom and love on the edge of life; of poetry in the middle of war. Each step a blessing, each moment an act of truth unfolding a new, life-giving reality.
I know you are here, walking beside me. I have nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.