Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld
A book review for the New Year
“You wake from dreams of doom and — for a moment — you know: beyond all the noise and the gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half-light of an early dawn.” — Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings
I was ten years old when UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld died in 1961, and I still remember that week. Having grown up with monthly “duck and cover” drills in our elementary school, many of the kids of my generation saw the UN as the great moral force that would prevent the Soviet Union and war hawks in America from plunging the planet into a nuclear holocaust.
I remember wondering, the week his plane went down over Africa on a peace mission to the Congo, if Hammarskjöld’s death would mean world war. I remember President Kennedy, on TV, saying, “Dag Hammarskjöld is dead, but the United Nations lives. His tragedy is deep in our hearts, but the tasks for which he died are at the top of our agenda.” I remember that I felt mildly reassured.
I remember that we talked about it in school when it happened, and we asked our teacher if the death of the only UN leader we had ever known (he was elected in 1953 as the second Secretary General of the then-still-new institution) meant the bombs would soon begin to fall.
My late father reminded me in a conversation we had back in 2005 — the Christmas I gave him a copy of “Markings” (we often gifted each other books; Dad had collected over 20,000) — that, at the time of Hammarskjöld’s death in 1961, Dad had considered creating an “old fashioned fallout shelter” in our home by putting a false ceiling over the basement and covering it with dirt from the back yard.
The entire world was nervous that year and the next (with the Cuban Missile Crisis), much as we are today with great power conflicts on hair-trigger alerts from Taiwan to Ukraine.
July 29th will mark the 118th year since Dag Hammarskjöld’s birth in 1905. Still regarded the UN’s greatest Secretary General, he helped shape the latter half of the 20th century, and, most believe, kept humanity from plunging into World War III on more than one occasion.
As Kofi Anan said of Hammarskjöld in September of 2001:
“His life and his death, his words and his actions, have done more to shape public expectations of the office, and indeed of the [United Nations] Organization, than those of any other man or woman in its history. His wisdom and his modesty, his unimpeachable integrity and single-minded devotion to duty, have set a standard for all servants of the international community — and especially, of course for his successors — which is simply impossible to live up to. There can be no better rule of thumb for a Secretary-General, as he approaches each new challenge or crisis, than to ask himself, ‘How would Hammarskjöld have handled this?’”
On the United Nations website, the organization notes:
In his final address of the year, broadcast over United Nations Radio on 31 December 1953, Mr. Hammarskjöld said:
“Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each one of us. To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just.
“And how can we fight for liberty if we are not free in our own minds? How can we ask others to sacrifice if we are not ready to do so?...
“Only in true surrender to the interest of all can we reach that strength and independence, that unity of purpose, that equity of judgment which are necessary if we are to measure up to our duty to the future, as men of a generation to whom the chance was given to build in time a world of peace.’” (UN Press Release SG/360, December 22, 1953)
The year he died, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously, the first and only such award in the Peace Prize’s history.
Thirty years later I discovered that Dag Hammarskjöld had kept a diary which came into print in the 1960s with the title “Markings.” Reading it, I was touched in a way that no other book had done in decades. Thirty years ago, when I owned an advertising agency in Atlanta, I bought 120 copies and mailed them to all our clients as Christmas/Hanukkah presents.
Markings is not a political book, but, instead, is the spiritual diary of a man tortured by and yet at the same time drawn to the incredible burden he held of keeping the world from disintegrating into nuclear holocaust while both Khrushchev and US hawks like Republican Senator Joe McCarthy and Vice President Nixon were doing their best to thwart his efforts. It starts in 1925, when he was 20 years old, and ends at his death in 1961.
There are occasional veiled references to people and situations of the time, and knowing the history of the day it’s not hard to figure them out, but mostly this book is the record of the personal spiritual and deeply mystical internal journey of one of the 20th century's greatest leaders, even as he walked through a political minefield and tried to keep the world from total nuclear annihilation.
Markings has developed a cult following over the 60 or so years it’s been continuously in print. Two books have been written purely dedicated to decoding it: Dag Hammarskjöld's White Book: The Meaning of Markings by Gustaf Aulen, which sits in the bookcase beside my bed next to my old and tattered copy of Markings, and Dag Hammarskjöld: a biographical interpretation of Markings by Henry P. Van Dusen.
A protestant Swede, Hammarskjöld would have called himself a Christian. I would call him a mystic who transcended Christianity. And friends I’ve introduced this book to — Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and agnostics — have found inspiration and meaning in it. (And, for some, it was just too introspective or poetic.)
In Markings, Hammarskjöld quotes the famous Sufi/Muslim mystic and poet Rumi: “The lovers of God have no religion but God alone.” He quotes Zoroastrians, ancient Chinese mystics, and Greeks.
As Gustaf Aulen writes:
“God does not work only in the Christian sphere. His activity is universal, and its signs can easily be recognized everywhere with non-Christian religions. It is thus no accident that ‘Markings’ contains quotations from non-Christian authors. On the contrary, Hammarskjöld has searched — we might say, eagerly searched — for statements that can transcend the barriers between different religions.”
Hammarskjöld was a Swede who loved his nation and the Scandinavian sense of “community obligation to others” (which conservatives decry as “socialism”), and was an internationalist liberal with a PhD in economics. But in his heart he was a mystic.
Below are a few of his entries, just to give you a taste, a feeling, for his voice in this extraordinary diary.
On April 7, 1953, as the United Nations was voting him into an office he did not seek (up until just a few days before, he had no idea he had even been nominated), he wrote:
“Except in faith, nobody is humble. The mask of weakness or of Phariseeism is not the naked face of humility.
“And, except in faith, nobody is proud. The vanity displayed in all its varieties by the spiritually immature is not pride.
“To be, in faith, both humble and proud: that is, to live, to know that in God I am nothing, but that God is in me.”
“That strange moment when a man’s features are dissolved into the trembling shimmer on the surface of the wave, through which you peer into the depths without being able to see the bottom. You are tempted to dive and to grasp — but the water cannot be grasped, and beneath its surface you cannot breathe.
“One step further and the relation is destroyed, reduced to terror and error: you imagine you are taking possession of a human being, but, in fact, you are losing him. In your attempt to break down the barriers of a personality, you are building a new prison for yourself.”
“Below even the sunniest and most secure human relationship, the abyss lies waiting — because our lack of faith is fascinated by the possibilities of the night side of life.”
In 1955, struggling with communist China to release US prisoners of war from the Korean conflict, buffeted by criticism from both Khrushchev, Senator McCarthy, and Vice President Nixon, Hammarskjöld wrote in his diary:
“‘To the pure all things are pure.’ But if a man can only reach this state by making compromises, then his striving is itself an impurity. In such matters there are no differences of degree.
“‘What! He is now going to try to teach me!’ -- Why not? There is nobody from whom you cannot learn. Before God, who speaks through all men, you are always in the bottom class of nursery school.”
“Before Thee in humility, with Thee in faith, in Thee in peace.”
“So, once again, you chose for yourself — and opened the door to chaos. The chaos you become whenever God’s hand does not rest upon your head.
“He who has once been under God’s hand, has lost the innocence: only he feels the full explosive force of destruction which is released by a moment’s surrender to temptation.
“But when his attention is directed beyond and above, how strong he is, with the strength of God, who is within him because he is in God. Strong and free, because his self no longer exists.”
It’s unlikely that people who did not know him personally would have guessed that, during that incredibly turbulent year, the thoughts Hammarskjöld would choose to write into his diary talked of his wrestling with faith instead of world politics.
In a 1955 paragraph that reminds one of great mystics like Meister Eckhart or Paramahansa Yogananda, he added:
“It is not sufficient to place yourself daily under God. What really matters is to be only under God: the slightest division of allegiance opens the door to daydreaming, petty conversation, petty boasting, petty malice — all the petty satellites of the death-instinct.
“‘But how, then, am I to love God?’ ‘You must love Him as if He were a non-God, a non-Spirit, a non-Person, a non-Substance: love Him simply as the One, the pure and absolute Unity in which is no trace of Duality. And into this One, we must let ourselves fall continually from being into non-being. God helps us to do this.’”
On October 12, 1958, the Soviet Union exploded a 1000-kiloton nuclear bomb in an atmospheric test that shook the world. That day, Hammarskjöld wrote in his diary:
Day slowly bleeds to death
Through the wound made
When the sharp horizon’s edge
Ripped through the sky.
Into its now empty veins
Seeps the darkness.
The corpse stiffens,
Embraced by the chill of night.
Over the dead one are lit
Some silent stars.
On the next page, perhaps at day’s end, he wrote, simply:
“Lord — Thine the day, And I the day’s.”
Markings is the diary of a man who was deeply struggling to fill himself with the transcendent, who had touched it and knew it, but also struggled with the humanness that so often keeps us from it. It’s a frank and extraordinary insight into another person’s soul, into his spiritual battles, his doubts, fears, and joys.
There is no mention in the book, other than in the most oblique of terms, of his work with the United Nations. Instead, we simply find the true heart — and the deepest anguish — of one of history’s greatest statesmen and peacemakers.
Just a few months before he died, he wrote:
In the small hours:
Have I done right?
Why did I act
Just as I did?
Over and over again
The same steps,
The same words;
Never the answer.
In his final speech to the UN, he compared the struggle for world peace with the progression in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (his favorite) from the stormy, bleak First Movement into the Ode To Joy of the Fourth Movement.
This rise from the base to the joyous, from the selfish to the selfless, from the human to the divine, was the constant effort of his life. (Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was played at the UN in the commemoration of his death.)
Dag Hammarskjöld’s extraordinary time on this world’s stage — and the startling diary that he left behind — demonstrate to each of us the possibility of maintaining a deeply spiritual center while still dealing with the most difficult problems of life.
Indeed, his advice to himself was to throw oneself into life with total effort, as one’s greatest gift both to our fellow humans and to whatever we conceive of as God or our essential human nature.
“Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live, great enough to die for,” he wrote in 1952, before that fateful call from the United Nations.
Every reflective person struggles with finding his or her own personal mission, dedicating ourselves to things greater than our own short lives, and looking into the often frightening depths of our own souls.
In following Hammarskjöld's discovery of his own mission, passion, and struggles — and his battle with the seduction of joy and the pain of death and tragedy — we better prepare ourselves for our own inevitable confrontations with the same.
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