The following appeared as an op-ed piece in the NY Times on November 19,1979. I often think about my experience that evening at the top of the World Trade Center. While New York has recovered from the horrors of the 1970s, the thoughts I expressed then are still relevant.
“From here,” we said, sipping wine 107 stories high at Windows on the World, “even slums look beautiful.”
East New York, my native Brooklyn, which now competes with the worst third-world slums, shimmered in the far distance before the glint of Jamaica Bay. From another angle, we could see beyond Central Park to the haze of the South Bronx. It was breathtaking and beautiful.
Everything and everyone, from a distance, can be loved. In their latest revision, China‘s historians have elevated Ghengis Khan into a near-romantic figure who descended from the steppes to unite bands of petty warring states. The power, force and ugliness of Picasso‘s Guemica has been converted into decorative art, to be hung over the living-room couch.
The more compassionate the person, the more that person is supposed to love the world and the people in it. Many do—at a distance. Hearts break at the thought of homeless victims, check books become means o f consolation. Humanists care about Cambodians, Kurds and Zimbabweans.
The love of multitudes is an act of will, bringing to the heart what the head views compassionately. The thought of millions, especially those who are victims, creates a pointilist image, beautiful in itself. It is the esthetic of charity.
But to love another person, as an individual, is life itself, and infinitely harder. Life up close reveals the scars of being human. Here are the annoyances of small habits, those exquisite instruments that seem designed to torture intimates.
How much easier to be inspired by the call to noble action on behalf of those unseen than it is to find what is noble in your neigh bor. Those far away represent the hope of the future; the person next door is a crank.
Ideals are necessary and fine. But it is when they are lived in life’s little encounters as well that there is a real chance of making the world a better place for everyone.
From NY Times November 19, 1979