Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
The inside of a glacier is quiet. Nevertheless I listened for a sound, having always harbored the suspicion that glaciers are alive. I deduced this from the fact that like all sentient beings, they eat and excrete—everything in their path, and digested bits of detritus, respectively. So once inside the hollowed tunnels of the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in the Alps, I tried to get very still to hear the inner organs of the glacier working.
Unfortunately there was French muzak and a photographer hawking instant prints of tourists sitting next to his St. Bernard in a small studio carved out of the glacial ice. In between offers he would blow on his hands and stomp his feet, for it was cold in the glacier, though surreally warm enough for T-shirts outside. With the flow of tourists speaking French, and my little son saying, “Daddy, it’s cold, I want to go out of here,” I couldn’t make out the sound of the glacier breathing.
There was also the noisy waterfall one was required to run through at the entrance of the “grotto.” Yes, the glacier is melting. It’s shrunken by half in 20 years—the blink of an eye in the life of a glacier—which suggests that if the glacier is alive, it is dying fast. The analogy of melted glacier spilling down the mountain like tears for the glacier’s own imminent demise was too obvious to miss.
Inside, the tunnel walls glisten. The smooth ice has a large granular texture with bits of rock suspended here and there. Putting my hands on the cold, wet walls I felt the layered tons of frozen weather. And finally, though not hearing glacial stomach rumblings, I did hear silence; the quietude of the scale of time in which a glacier exists; a time in which traveling a hundred meters takes as many years.
Quiet. Silence—behind the sound, within the sound; always present; like space in our universe in which matter is all-important, but almost non-existent—a cosmic silence that holds all sound in her perpetual embrace.
In this silence I could vaguely make out something else—the Absolute’s pain at our collective ignorance that would kill a perfectly good glacier. But then, continues Gorebag (from above), “The Absolute is alone, eternally sensing the agony of eternity, and there is no one else out there. Outside help will never come.”
Maybe I was just feeling sorry for God, like the man outside the glacier who said, “It’s sad, isn’t it? A pity that the glacier is melting.” It’s a pity, I thought, that the only beings—yes, humans—that have the possibility of sharing the Absolute’s burden are a bunch of comfort- and thrill-seekers who squander the resources given to help us fulfill a definite purpose. But there’s a particularly despicable sound in “it’s a pity” talk. It’s shallow and lacks teeth.
Clearly pity and sympathy are useless for glaciers, the Absolute, or anyone, really. They are a self-indulgent means of self-calming, like a special pharmaceutical designed to anesthetize the pangs of genuine conscience. Which raises a further question, once again formulated by Gorebag (almost certainly a relative of the famous purveyor of Gold’s Horseradish): How exactly can I return the hospitality of the Absolute?
This question increased in intensity with each of the 300 steps up the mountain out of the glacier.
As we got onto the train, my son hit his shin. I held him as he wailed. I breathed into his pain. And realized that was it—compassion. Its root means “suffer with,” suggesting that the burden of pain is truly shared. Clearly this is very different from sympathy or pity, as it means making the emotional realm available to feel whatever the other is feeling.
Every being that feels itself as a separate ego is a part of the all-in-all, the Absolute. If I can “suffer with” whoever is suffering in front of me, I am, in a small but infinitely meaningful way, alleviating some of the suffering of the Absolute. Even a dying glacier. Even a tree. A dog. A child. Even an arrogant fool that doesn’t even recognize he’s suffering, or why.