How Leonard Cohen’s parting words apply even more deeply to our plight today

Originally published March 31st 2018 in Canada’s National observer. Discover the Original article

“It is only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.” Leonard Cohen

Shortly before he died in November 2016, Leonard Cohen gave a press conference to discuss his new album, You Want it Darker. During the conference he spoke about the use he made in the album’s title song of the Hebrew word, hineni. This word which translates as “Here I am” or “I am ready” occurs on a handful of occasions in the Old Testament. Moses uses it when God speaks to him from out of the burning bush, and Abraham uses it on three separate but related moments: when God tells him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, when Isaac asks him what they are doing going up the mountain together and finally when God intervenes at the very last moment to stop the sacrifice. Cohen’s explanation of why he chose that particular word is beautifully phrased and rich in wisdom. As much as the album itself this response strikes me as a precious final gift:

“That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We are all motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are hoping to serve. So this is just a part of my nature and I think everybody else’s nature to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It is only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”

That which I hope to serve and the field in which I have been working for the last decade is the environmental movement, but Cohen’s words made me stop and reflect about how exactly I should be of service. That process of reflection led me in two different and unexpected directions.

The first direction was to consider the three occasions on which Abraham uses the word hineni and how those three moments are all contradictory. How can he reply the same thing to God who asks him to kill his son, to his son who presumably does not want to be killed and then again to God who tells him to stop? The Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Niels Bohr, once observed that the opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth, as opposed to trivial truths were the opposite is a falsehood or absurdity. If all three of Abraham’s seemingly contradictory statements are all true then what is the great truth contained in them, and how might that truth be applicable to the environmental emergency that, in the year and a half since Cohen passed away, has become more and more acutely articulate?

The first answer I would offer is that we need to remain ready and attentive and that this posture of attentiveness is incompatible with an attitude of certainty. I do not mean by this that we should give in to the “doubt” of the climate skeptics – that would be to move from truth to absurdity – but rather that we should be ready to constantly adjust our behavior based on an attitude of attentive awareness. We must not let the gravity of the situation provoke a form of tunnel vision where we become convinced of the rightness of our actions. After all, if there is one thing that one can say with absolute certainty it is that all human actions will produce unexpected and unforeseen consequences. While it would be a tragedy if we were to allow doubt to lead to inaction on such a crucial issue, it would be a different form of tragedy if we became convinced that our chosen course of action was the right one. It was by putting his own preconceptions to one side and being attentive to the needs of the present that Abraham was able to align his behavior with what was necessary. But it took two radical changes of direction before he got there.

The second lesson I took away from the Biblical story and from Cohen’s remarks on it was a darker and more disturbing one. Abraham is not asked to do something trivial by God; he is asked to kill his own son. What if we, at this moment in time, are asked to do something as extreme and fundamentally inhuman? What if we too are asked to kill our own children?

I do not align myself with the more extreme and misanthropic wing of the environmental movement that thinks the best thing that could happen to the planet would be for us humans to go extinct. That is a reaction that strikes me as both anti-humanist but also strangely anthropocentric. It presumes that the planet cares about us or is constrained by our own scale of time and action; in truth we are a speck in geological time, and whether we go extinct or not is a matter of supreme indifference to the planet.

So if I am not literally advocating for infanticide or species level suicide, what does it mean in the specific context of 2018 to be saying hineni when we are asked to sacrifice our own offspring?

The answer I believe lies in what happens after the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain. God rewards Abraham for his faith and his offspring are blessed. It is from this departure point that the three monotheistic religions are born: Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their origins to Abraham and to his offspring. By being prepared to sacrifice his own son, not only is his son saved, but Abraham has an impact on human history that would have been unimaginable to his own limited understanding. Perhaps we, too, at this crucial moment in human history are called to sacrifice our own children by consciously choosing to leave them a life that is less comfortable than the one we have enjoyed. And if we do this then we may paradoxically save them and ensure the continuation of our species in ways that surpass our current understanding.

We must not let the gravity of the situation provoke a form of tunnel vision where we become convinced of the rightness of our actions, the author writes.

To behave in such a way seems inhuman and cruel: what parent would consciously treat their own child like this? But as I try and listen attentively to what the emergency is saying – the hurricanes in the Caribbean, the fires in Canada and California, the floods in India, the wars in Syria and Yemen, tens of millions of people displaced from their homes, the destruction of the great forest basins, the loss of 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil a year, I wonder if our own understandable and admirable desire to protect our children could be blinding us to a darker and more uncomfortable truth.

It is psychologically difficult to let go of material possessions and the safety and status that they confer, and we have gotten used to a great level of immaterial or collective comfort as well: transport infrastructure, telecommunications, electricity at the flick of a switch. As an adult, one may be able to rationalize and deny oneself certain pleasures, but deliberately inflicting hardship on one’s own children goes against everything we are conditioned to believe. As parents we are supposed to show our love for our children by nurturing and protecting them. But what if Abraham’s gesture was actually the greater form of love? By his willingness to serve that which was inexplicable to him, even if it meant sacrificing his own son’s life, he not only preserved his own son’s life but also guaranteed life for his children’s children and all those who came after him.

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