About a month ago, just before I began a lecture, a young woman, a student at Claremont McKenna College, beamed with joy as she approached me to say how much she cherished my poetry. For a brief moment, I wondered how she had gotten hold of my unpublished masterpieces—the poems I wrote while bored to tears on a summer internship so many years ago. But after a long pause, I announced that I was not my namesake.
That encounter reminded me how powerfully resonant are Kahlil Gibran’s great insights into the human condition, especially now, when it seems to many that a great crime has been committed against the nation. Here is an excerpt from “On Crime and Punishment,” published in his 1923 book The Prophet:
Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.
But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,
So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also….
And this also, though the word lie heavy upon your hearts:
The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,
And the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured,
And still more often the condemned is the burden bearer for the guiltless and unblamed.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.
And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.
We are the weavers of our destiny, the loom is our society, our democracy, our humanity. We bear responsibility for the whole cloth, for all the threads that bind us, one to another.
A week before the 2016 election, I had the good fortune of visiting Flint, Michigan. I had never been there before. I’d heard Michael Moore’s story and so many others about this former industrial behemoth, home to General Motors, a great symbol of America’s economic might, a union town where a hard-working boy or girl could grow up to be somebody. Flint was a place where you could get a decent public education, a well-paying job, and even save enough money to own a home and send a child to college.
I knew Flint was not what it used to be. But given the water crisis of late, I expected to meet a community of concerned, active, and engaged students. Instead, just days before the election, I met a hundred students of every demographic, a hundred threads in our loom—not strong and taut but weak and loose. Their countenances ranged from expressionless to forlorn. They were witnesses; bystanders to a crime, not its victims. Turns out the toxic water was more isolated than the national news had said. Neither the campus nor the better-off sections of the city were affected. Only the most abandoned, poorest, and blackest threads of Flint lay broken.