A friend made me cry over the weekend. I can’t thank him enough.
Short thought: It was the bags that did it for me.
An old friend, Andy Marshall, posted to his Twitter feed on Saturday a video from 1989.
I watched it. For what must be the hundredth time. And, as always, burst into tears.
So much about this video is beautiful, and terrible, and inspiring, and heartbreaking, all at once.
But as I said, even more than the slight frame of the man making this astonishingly quiet, superlatively brave stance, even more than the simplicity of his dress – dark trousers, white shirt – what hits me are the bags. It’s hard to make out, but it looks like a briefcase in one hand and a shopping bag in the other.
Not only unarmed. But encumbered. Standing in front of a column of tanks. Because he feels he has to.
Just watching it again as I write this, the tears are flowing once more.
I knew next to nothing about China in 1989. I was 18. Doing my A-levels, hoping to get the results that would allow me to study Japanese at Cambridge. But even in my ignorance, everything that happened in China during May of that year filled me with a sense of possibility. That things could change. That people who hoped for the better – not just for themselves, but their fellows – could prevail.
And then came 4 June. Or May 35th, or any of the other date references now routinely blocked by the Great Firewall of China. As the tanks and troops rolled into Tiananmen Square. The protests were routed. Hundreds were killed. Something intangible died too. And in my teenage naïveté, I couldn’t stop weeping.
Then, the next day, came this guy. I don’t know what happened to him. I hope – somehow – he avoided the fate one fears was probably his. (Let’s face it. The traditional telling of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes finishes before the likely dénouement, where the little boy who yells out “I can see your bum in that!” is dragged off by soldiers who quietly explain to his parents that they never, actually, had a son in the first place, and any memory they may have to the contrary must be a fairy-tale.)
But when I cry at this video, it’s not just for the hopelessness. It’s for the opposite too. It’s at the thought that even in the darkest moments, when raw power smiles and shows its teeth, human beings exist who will say: No. Not this. Not now. Not me.
There’s hope in those tears. There’s faith – not just religious faith, but a faith that we frail, petty beings, with all our doubts and despondencies, our unerring ability to get the wrong end of the stick and listen to the demons whispering in our ear, can always find a way to step up. For as long as that’s true, there’s hope.
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