Sunday, March 26, 2006

Life in Krakow

Like anybody, when I was in college I had friends from many different ethnic groups. Some were born in foreign countries, others maybe one generation away. And during the time that I knew them, it seems that several of them became interested in the culture of their home countries. A Japanese friend studied Japanese, a Ukrainian friend traveled there, a Korean friend became active in an Asian Christian ministry, etc. And for me, whatever becomes of this Polish adventure I have decided to take, I hope that that is not it. Ie, that there is more to it than some ethnic exploration phase.

Among other things, it would be very ironic for me to try that because I am not really Polish. I only have a Polish name, and even that was poorly Anglicized a few generations ago. I have even spent the better part of my professional career in Chicago, but know very few Polish people there. So if that's not it, then what? I have a feeling that there is something about Polish culture which is relevant to all nations, developed or otherwise. And it is not just about the Church, the history of the Slavic people, or being a buffer state subject to the whims of stronger neighbors, though all of those things are important.

It's also about a nation that is doing its level best to make a go of things. For whatever Poland has suffered in its past, it is not geared toward grievance-mongering. Even though a Polish culture is geared toward the preservation of memory (there are memorials everywhere), it all seems to be forward-looking, with just a minimum of score-settling. It is not necessarily the same for other nations. To some extent, this may seem like a trite observation, but it is not. Directly to the east of here in Belarus, a quasi-communist strongman is arresting peaceful demonstrators as I write. Most of the Muslim world is defensively crouched against consumerist Western culture, American troops in Saudi Arabia, or Israel or whoever today's bogeyman is. Of course, in the West such attitudes are criticized, and deservedly so.

But we should also note that they are not entirely unreasonable. The world is a perilous place, and our societies are fragile, so there is a strong reactionary impulse to protect whatever we have by walling ourselves off from the that which we don't understand. And paradoxically, the less we have to protect, the more reactionary we have to be in protecting it. It takes a fair amount of moral courage to be willing to expose oneself to the world and make the best of what happens.

Poland (and other nations) have this courage. The world would be a better place if more did.

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