Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… --William Butler Yeats
Months ago when our interest in Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was first kindling, a friend said to me, “How can we not be curious? He’s a falconer for Christ’s sake.” A joke, yes, but a revealing one. RFK Jr. didn’t merely stick out because he wasn’t the other candidates; RFK Jr. stuck out because of a quality of aliveness—an intensity and fullness of aliveness. In a time which can seem an all-out attempt at collective disassociation, a general rapturing into the false heaven of the Internet, it was refreshing to stumble upon a presidential candidate enamored of primary things, of the holiness of the real. Here was a man who seemed only interested in everything; here was a red-blooded existence. And that RFK Jr. spoke and wrote in defiance of a host of prevalent attitudes and in defiance of our government did not concern us; in fact, his stance was a relief, a sign that he could perhaps actually see. We knew none other than Thomas Jefferson urged such seeing, nudging us citizens to a watchful skepticism of the government (“for nothing can keep it right,” said Jefferson, “but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence.”). In short, we were curious about Mr. Kennedy, about his life and character, and wondered if he was the sort of human who could help call down the falcon lost in the gyre.
But before I continue I’d like to share a bit about my background. For starters, I’ve never had much interest in current national politics. I don’t reliably follow the news. And in my 46 years I recall only a fleet thin flame of ardor for Barack Obama, a flame which soon faded as the drones continued to drone. Like many others, I’ve come to believe the sanest game-plan for humanity is a devotion to the great nearby, to the gospel of the local. I appreciate Brother David Steindl-Rast who said, “The future will not be a new, big tower of power. Our hope in the future is…well-trodden paths from house to house.” And I appreciate Basho who wrote:
Journeying to and fro, to and fro, cultivating a small field.
Well-trodden paths from house to house. Cultivating a small field. Such are the images that move me; such are my talismans.
I also want to say that despite a piece published in this forum a few months ago, a piece in favor of Mr. Kennedy, I am suspicious of missionaries. I don’t want to convert anyone one way or another. Any species of boosterism—or cancellation—should be met with a flinty eye. “The root and seed of Democracy,” said Emerson, “is the doctrine, Judge for yourself.” May it be so.
Varieties of Experience
To judge Mr. Kennedy for myself, or at least to get a sense of his life and character, I’ve read various pieces by him and about him. Especially vivid was The Real RFK Jr. by Dick Russell, a recently published biography of the candidate. To give you a sense of Mr. Kennedy, of his life and character, let me share some things he apparently did in his boyhood, teens, and twenties.
RFK Jr. raised and bred homing pigeons; rode horses; fished and trapped; played football and rugby; learned falconry from a neighbor (naming his first hawk “Morgan LeFay” after the sorceress in the King Arthur legends); took care of a lion cub for a spell in high school; read deeply (an essay written at seventeen on C.S. Lewis contains the sentence: “Lewis predicts that we as human beings are on our way to becoming dehumanized supermen, forgetting God and putting all our faith in science.”); trainhopped; made various involving river trips (and “first descents”) by raft and kayak in South America; pursued animal poachers in Africa; lived in Colombia (“clearing fields with machete and fire, branding skeletal Brahman steers,” breaking horses, castrating hogs, driving cattle, hunting capybara—a giant rodent—from a dugout canoe, and removing chiggers from his skin by suffocating them with nail polish); lived in Peru (says Mr. Russell: “Bobby spent much of the school year living with Maryknoll missionaries in an Aymara Indian village. He traveled with a young Mexican-American priest to rural farms and villages” where he helped serve mass, perform baptisms, minister to the sick, and bury the dead); spent two weeks working in a lumber camp in Colorado; got fired on by soldiers in the Andes as he and friend Blake Fleetwood made a pilgrimage to “Christ in the Andes,” a statue forged from melted cannons that stands in a remote pass on the border between Argentina and Chile (Mr. Fleetwood recounted this escapade decades ago in The New York Times); and lived in Alabama for a year, staying first with a lady-killing cowboy named “Sweet Pea” with whom Mr. Kennedy helped “round up strays and rope any cows that looked to need medical attention”; and then with a Vietnam vet named “Sugar Boy” during which time Mr. Kennedy caught and trained raptors (“It’s kind of a shock,” said Sugar Boy, “when you walk in the bathroom before going to bed and you look up and there’s an owl lookin’ at you.”) and worked on his first book, a biography of civil rights hero Judge Frank M. Johnson.
A skeptic’s take on such a variety of experience would chalk it up as privileged gonzo larkishness or chest-beating thrill-seeking—an understandable take, one likely partly true. But there was more to it. For I’ve not acknowledged the murders of his father and uncle; the psychic fallout in the family afterward; and his years-long struggle with drug addiction. That Mr. Kennedy had such an appetite for life despite these harrowings is considerable. This is a man who was impressively, even alarmingly, open to new experience. And his appetite didn’t seem to gutter despite mounting responsibilities and the slings and arrows of his later decades. In the face of marriage and parenthood; divorce and remarriage; the births of more children; the eventual suicide of his second wife; a third marriage (to current wife Cheryl Hines); and the demands of his work as a well-known environmental lawyer, Mr. Kennedy has seemed to live—to borrow again from Emerson—with the awareness of the accusing sufficiency of every day. And that awareness seemed to galvanize him against inertia and outright collapse—fates others might’ve fallen prey to. A stray detail in Russell’s biography—a detail that seems right out of Chekhov—haunts. The morning after his father was killed, Mr. Kennedy was at a Catholic boarding school. And a priest there reportedly wakened Kennedy (he was to return home immediately) “brusquely.” In other words, the exact moment when life could’ve swerved into tenderness, into a small mercy, the knife cut deeper.
What I also want to say is that this variety of experience—his appetite and capacity for it—seems part and parcel of an attempt to fashion himself from the clay of the heroic. What makes Mr. Kennedy unusual for our time is that he still, almost embarrassingly, almost gauchely, very much believes in human greatness.
As evidence of this belief in greatness, consider these remarks by his children. Interviewed by Mr. Russell for the biography, Bobby Kennedy III, born in 1984, had this to say about his father: “He tried to instill in me to have courage under pressure, to sacrifice personal comfort for the greater good, to face adversity merrily, and to always carry more than my own weight—in Tennyson’s words, ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’”
Mr. Kennedy’s youngest son, Aidan, had this to say about his father: “My dad follows a pretty stoic value set—to be present, not allow yourself to be too internally affected by external things you can’t control; to place more emphasis on personal growth and development than superficial markers of progress; and to try to make lighter and easier the lives of people around you.”
Son Finn said this: “The primary values I’ve learned from my father are curiosity and critical thinking, to challenge convention—the fights where you meet the most resistance are the most worthwhile…My father once told me that he would feel much more comfortable with himself if he led a life that had the most positive impact on the greatest number of people. The stories we heard around the dinner table every night were about people who lived their lives along those lines.”
Daughter Kathleen offered this about her father: “I’ve learned a lot from my dad about perseverance. I think it’s amazing that he doesn’t quit. And he’s also funny. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about my dad. They think he’s a serious guy, kind of scary and intense, but his sense of humor is incredible. When there were bumps, he always picked me right up.”
And of parenting his children, Mr. Kennedy said this: “What I seek to…teach my own kids [is] to instill them with noble thoughts. Which is, I think, the principal objective of parenthood, to make them feel like they can be heroes. And that the object of life is to transcend narrow self-interest, and to spend your resources on behalf of the community. That’s the key to personal happiness and fulfillment. You work as hard as you can for the right thing, and then let God be in charge of the results…We still have to preserve the planet for our children…My job is to be able to look myself in the mirror and say I spent my short time on this planet trying to make it a better place for my children. I have to look my children in the eye.”
Such quotes indeed paint a rosy picture of Mr. Kennedy as a man and a father. One can safely assume there is more—much more—to the story. (Public scoldings of Mr. Kennedy by certain members of his extended family, for example, gainsay this rosiness.) But these quotes do indicate a certain stance toward being, a bent, not typical of our time; and one that, I believe, is worthy of our notice.
Reading Russell’s biography I was struck by a handful of other things. I was struck by RFK Jr.’s admission that a childhood encounter with Rachel Carson was one of the “great thrills” of his life (his parents had the great earth-reverencer over for dinner one night when he was a boy); his work with Cesar Chavez and his eventual service as one of Chavez’s pallbearers; and his love for the Catholic saints, especially St. Francis. Apparently Mr. Kennedy’s first memory—a memory so picturesque one may be forgiven for finding it cloying—is holding his father’s dying black Labrador in the garden of their Georgetown home while sitting below a statue of the saint.
I was also struck by Mr. Kennedy’s civil disobedience in Puerto Rico on behalf of the people and animals of the small island of Vieques (the U.S. Navy was using the beautiful island for target practice), civil disobedience which landed Mr. Kennedy thirty days in jail. Even as the story of his disobedience would make for a lively Hollywood script, I won’t get into it here. But I will say that not only did Mr. Kennedy meet his two-week-old son Aidan while in jail, but that Mr. Kennedy’s mom, Ethel Kennedy, was over the moon to learn of her son’s rebellion. “My mother counts among her close friends enough admirals to sail the Atlantic Fleet, but she was nevertheless as proud of my civil disobedience as if I’d been elected to the senate.” (And the disobedience proved helpful: the Navy ultimately withdrew, leaving the battered island behind.)
I also was engaged by Mr. Kennedy’s father’s approach to parenting. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. often likened his upbringing, owing largely to father Robert Kennedy, to a “boot camp for moral courage.” His father took him and his siblings to Indian reservations and impoverished cities to waken their sympathy, pushed them physically (on a camping trip in the Grand Canyon, Mr. Kennedy recalls, his father “would ask us each morning to survey the horizon for a high peak, which we would then climb before breaking camp”), and gathered them at night to say the rosary and read the bible and Greek myths. Robert Kennedy was a man of moral fire (we read, for example, of his unannounced visit as senator in 1965 to Willowbrook State School for the intellectually disabled on Staten Island: apparently, Robert Kennedy was refused entry to this house of horrors and proceeded to kick down the door); and it seems this fire was passed on to his son. Clearly RFK Jr. was taught how to not take refuge in the standing order of things, how to thrive despite unseemly, radioactive actions and views. Famously, his father said: “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”
And I was moved—though I can’t recall if I learned this from Russell’s biography or elsewhere—by the work Mr. Kennedy has done with addicts, with the many people he has brought to treatment. That he successfully litigated against the factory farming industry, the construction of nuclear power plants, and on behalf of indigenous peoples; that he successfully litigated against Anaconda Copper, General Electric, Smithfield Foods, Dupont, and Monsanto; that he helped clean the Hudson and other bodies of water (while maintaining breeding aviaries for raptors at his home, teaching himself to be a water color painter, memorizing poems, and parenting six kids) and dragged friends and acquaintances to rehab is, to say the least, remarkable.
And I know such talk of greatness and heroism, of elevated striving and moral improvement, can be dreary and grating—can strike one’s ears as corny, sanctimonious, smarmily pious. And I know such talk can take on a sinister hue, slipping into a vacuous sort of American individualism, a glamorization of brute strength, even a eugenical intolerance. I’ve hopefully avoided such slipping. But to not have a sense of heroes, of heartening examples, seems just as troubling. Detaching ourselves from verticality, from a daily life lighted by a habitual vision of human flourishing, arguably will lead to more of the same: speed, violence, malaise, and the proliferation of diversionary tactics. We need patterns. We need touchstones. And RFK Jr. knows this. This is a man who has kept his heroes—Jesus, Sisyphus, Rachel Carson, Carl Jung—close.
Invitation into Vulnerability
In the case of RFK Jr. what prevents his talk of the heroic from taking on a sinister hue is his vulnerability, his openness about his woundedness. If he didn’t own up to his own anguish, his calls for self-reformation and collective reformation would be unpalatable. RFK Jr. is not the eternal boy. Nor is he the suffering man pretending otherwise. Rather, he is someone, as he admits, over whom the waters have gone. Many a time the trapdoor has opened under him. Many a time he has been the falcon blown off in the gyre. Much of his life, one might say, has been an extended invitation into vulnerability. RFK Jr. is open about how his trials have brought him to his knees: open about his subsequent struggles with addiction, about his commitment to the Twelve Steps and prayer. “The way we learn is through pain,” he has said. “Pain is the touchstone to spiritual growth. If you don’t experience the pain, you don’t have any spiritual growth. Hopefully what we get from enduring that pain is wisdom.”
In Chinese mythology the goddess of mercy and compassion is Kuan Yin. Legend has it Kuan Yin swore this vow: “May my body crack the day I fail a single needy being.” One teller of her tale, writer Barry Spacks, says “of course she failed” but “in her brokenness she became herself, for from the thousand fissures where her very body cracked from willing mercy grew the thousand arms and thousand hands of compassion.” Part of Mr. Kennedy’s allure is that he can seem to be someone who in his brokenness became himself; can seem a leader with arms of compassion reaching out through his cracks. We don’t need more teleprompter blandeur and mirage speak. Nor do we need freewheeling fomenters of the politics of hate. Rather, we need those seasoned by life, those who have walked the path of descent. We need leaders who have “grown down,” whose hearts have been hurt into an openness. We need leaders who can draw out our incipient nobility and stir in us an aspiration for healing. And to many, RFK Jr., more than the other candidates, fits that bill.
What is RFK Jr.’s vision as a presidential candidate? From my vantage point, there seem to be two basic thrusts. First, there is a faithfulness to what might be called “inter-independence.” I borrow this word not from RFK Jr. but from Catholic theologian Raimon Panikkar (taking the word out of its context).
Inter-Independence, as I use it in respect to RFK Jr.’s vision, is a double honoring of our interdependence and independence both. Interdependence without an honoring of independence can lead to something heavily centralized, something authoritarian, whose possible dark crescendo is the boot-stamping-on-the-face World State (and something ultimately anathema to a healthy interdependence). And independence without an honoring of interdependence can lead to an unhinged Babylonian free-for-all (something ultimately anathema to a healthy independence). But we need to hallow both: we need to hallow our responsibility to each other and our need for personal freedom. We need to remember that we are trustees of this great mystery and that we are trustees of our own sovereignty. This is a vision—a needed, paradox-embracing vision—that neither party seems much interested in but one which Mr. Kennedy (in his own words and actions) puts forth.
The second thrust of his vision, as I see it, is his ambition of peace, his pledge to end the wars and unwind empire. (The motto on his campaign website runs: “We will end the forever wars, clean up government, increase wealth for all, and tell Americans the truth.”) For many supporters this is the cornerstone of their appreciation for the man. This June at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire, in his “Peace and Diplomacy Speech,” RFK Jr. said:
We have internalized and institutionalized a reflex of violence as the response for any and all crises. Everything becomes a war. The war on drugs. The war on terror. The war on cancer. The war on climate change. This way of thinking predisposes us to wage endless wars abroad. Wars and coups and bombs and drones and regime change operations, and support for paramilitaries and juntas and dictators.
None of this has made us safer, and none of it has burnished our leadership or our moral authority. More importantly, we must ask ourselves, ‘Is this really who we are? Is this what we want to be? Is that what America’s Founders envisioned?’ Here’s another spiritual principle, one that my uncle also referred to when he said, ‘We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons.’
When we hold others in the belief that they are implacable enemies, they tend to mold themselves to our view of them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that launches all players into the cycle of suspicion that my uncle warned against. Inhabiting the role of an enemy, we empower hardliners in places like Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran. We invite them into the drama of conflict, the drama of provocation and counter-provocation, of ‘weapon and counter-weapon.’
Is it any wonder that as America has waged violence throughout the world, violence has overtaken us in our own nation? It has not come as an invasion. It has come from within. Our bombs, our drones, our armies are incapable of stopping gun violence on our streets and in our schools, or domestic violence in our homes. I see the same link here as my father and Martin Luther King saw about the Vietnam War. They believed that we could not have warfare abroad without bringing that violence home to our streets, to our attitudes, to our communities. Foreign violence is inseparable from domestic violence. Both are aspects of a basic orientation and a basic set of priorities.
Waging endless wars abroad, we have neglected the foundation of our own well-being. We have a decaying economic infrastructure. We have a demoralized and despairing people. We have toxins in our air and our soil and our water. We have deteriorating mental and physical health. These are the wages of war.
It is easy to linger over the power of these words. They are unblinking, wise, and large-hearted. Sifting out the nub of our crowded painful historical moment, the “Peace and Diplomacy Speech” is—even as it is susceptible, with its many nods to his uncle, to the criticism that it “cashes in on Camelot”—an eloquent and moving statement which seeks to effect change in current values. It is the work of a leader who appears exquisitely suited to a time piled high with difficulty.
The criticisms of Mr. Kennedy in the news are legion and most do not disturb me. And while I do disagree with him on some matters and certainly understand the resistance to the streak of lurid showmanship in his campaign (the push-ups and back-flips and hordes of soft-musicked campaign videos; the many invocations of Camelot), what he’s often pilloried for, I often appreciate. What others view as barmy conspiratorial paranoia, I can view as tonic and sensible vigilance to remain undeceived. But lately something has been unsettling me. And that’s his take on the situation in the Middle East. His vision of peace, of ending the forever wars and unwinding empire, has become suspect in light of a seeming undiscerning and expedient allegiance to Israel. To many this is a contradiction not easy to patch up. Regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, a conflict which is clearly anguished and frightening for both sides, Mr. Kennedy’s language lately has lapsed into realpolitik boilerplate. And at times he seems to lack a sympathy for the Palestinians; seems coldly incurious about their plight. And to many, his support of Israel is a countenancing of “the vicious and dangerous cycle” his uncle prophetically warned us about. Peace work—as he has suggested in various speeches—stems in our capacity to hold ambiguities, hold tensions, to avoid veering off into tribal tightenings and shrill convictions. Peace work asks us to disenthrall ourselves—from either-or thinking, from pretending evil is always over there. Peace work invites us to be wary of acting in deference to abstract judgments. We are all, every one of us, children of this strange mystery. We are all here, by who knows what grace, and members of one another. Israelis, Palestinians. Democrats, Republicans. Black, white. Proud Boy, Trans Boy. At his best RFK Jr. reminds us of this. In his book American Values, Mr. Kennedy proudly writes of his mother’s beloved correspondence with Trappist monk Thomas Merton. We all could use a little Merton now. Here are some of the most thawing and precious words penned by an American (words from Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander):
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . .
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
“The Second Coming”—an excerpt of which is above—is perhaps Yeats’ most famous poem, an unnerving work written in the register of High Prophecy; a poem whose symbolic language is at once familiar, lapidary, and bizarre—reflecting Yeats’ sense of modernity’s darkness and dissolution. (“A conviction that the world was now but a bundle of fragments,” the poet wrote in his Autobiographies, “possessed me without ceasing.”) Written in January of 1919, the poem’s twenty-two lines mirror the fever-dream simultaneity of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Easter Rising. In a letter to writer Ethel Mannin, Yeats fleshed out the politics of his apocalyptic song: “[As] my sense of reality deepens, and I think it does with age, my horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater… Communist, Fascist, nationalist, clerical, anti-clerical, all are responsible according to the number of their victims.” Scholar David Ross adds: “Whatever its political relevance, ‘The Second Coming,’ shares the understanding…that ‘the growing murderousness of the world’ is a mere symptom of the culture’s fall from unity of being into… self-division.”
But who is the falconer and who is the falcon? Is the falconer the government and the falcon its citizenry? Is the falconer the mystery some call “God” and the falcon humanity? Or is the falconer the soul and the falcon the ego, the smaller self?
Tempting as it is, there’s no way to neatly say: great poetry doesn’t lend itself to our meaning-greedy dissections. But according to the poem (and according to our eyes and our nervous systems) some rough beast is indeed afoot, some self-division underway, an awful tide is being loosed. And if that’s the case, what might you and I do? What might world leaders do? What might presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. do?
Not long ago I joined a group of eighth graders for a tour of our local dump. And the highlight of the tour was a half hour spent with a falconer. He was there because of gulls—hundreds of sea gulls picking up trash, flying off with it, and dropping it elsewhere. The gulls were also polluting the water of the nearby beach with their feces. So the falconer and his falcon had been employed to “haze” the gulls—drive them away. I still remember first seeing the bird when the falconer got it from his dusty Ford Explorer. The falcon was wearing a hood; an eerie sight.
I immediately liked the falconer, a mild-mannered sun-beaten guy in his sixties, an affable irregular, and soon I began peppering him with questions. I remember hearing about his “mews”—hawk house—in his suburban backyard (perhaps like the one RFK Jr. built at Millbrook high school with his friends just after his father’s death: “A few days after I arrived,” Mr. Kennedy wrote in a piece for Vanity Fair in 2007, “we began gutting the zoo’s old wooden monkey house to create a mews, or hawk house, installing screen perches, shelf perches, and scales for weighing our hawks.”).
And for whatever reason, I opened up to the falconer about a situation at home. There was a hawk at our little farm killing grown chickens. This was unusual. We’ve had chicks picked off before, and pullets too, but never full-grown birds. For many days when I came home from work I found a new carcass in the orchard. I saw the hawk—a red tail. It perched at the top of a sycamore by the creek. And though I love hawks, consider them one of my favorite creatures (my daughters and I strive to note our “first hawk of the day”), I sometimes threw gravel at it. I told the falconer this.
“It’s probably an immature,” he said to me. “Adults wouldn’t do that. It’ll stop soon.”
But it had been days, I told him. It had killed maybe nine hens. And they weren’t even properly eaten—just killed. Then I told the falconer I was contemplating shooting the hawk.
He turns to me. His falcon is somewhere wheeling above us, spooking gulls to the west, toward the freeway and the Pacific. Then the falconer says: “You don’t want to do that.” He’s now holding my gaze for the first time in our conversation. His look is so bald, I avoid it. The eighth graders mill about us, perhaps listening.
“No,” I find myself saying, feeling at once cornered and relieved. “No, I don’t.”
After this brief exchange, the falconer’s demeanor returns to how it was: unassuming, mild, affable, almost invisible.
And soon he raises his arm and calls into the sky and then a live falcon lands on his wrist.
Image credit: “Peregrine Falcon Soaring” via Wikimedia Commons