At a time when the world feels upside down, when the bullies prevail, and when wisdom is rarer than diamonds, I remind myself of a time in my life when nice people still roamed the earth.
I was a sixteen-year-old girl in Rome when I met a handful of young men who shared my passion for ecology. They were like having five Gandhis as my childhood friends. This balanced my ego a bit, as I was in that annoying phase of adolescence when you convince yourself that your friends are superficial, your parents are so passé, and maybe the world depends on you to save it. A little humility was just what I needed.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these fine young men had also taught me tolerance by their example. They were rosy-cheeked Franciscan monks in their twenties, living amongst the people. They had left the convenience of their monasteries for one reason alone. They had a dream, and to realize it, they needed help from the rest of us. Their dream was simple: they were going to replant the Sahara.
Now, I was born in Africa. I had camped at the comfortable edge of the great desert and had experienced the sirocco sand storms many times. I knew the Sahara was beckoning them with its dangerous beauty, like a mirage, a temptress, a femme fatale. I also knew for a fact that the Sahara will not let you grow peaches—even if you hauled all of Africa’s manure to it. For one, all your trucks will get stuck in the sand. But I said nothing, because after all, I had signed up for their training camp to learn how to replant the desert. I dutifully collected the seeds of my European peaches and apples, just in case teacher knows best.
These modern-day monks looked like ordinary, blue-collar men who worked outdoors. Only they were healthier and stronger, because they never smoked or drank or indulged in anything other than admiring the sunset. They dressed in worn cotton shirts and jeans. They baked a dark herbal bread made with an old starter from Assisi—and they sold it at their eatery in Trastevere, to fund their desert enterprise, of course. Warm from the oven, slathered with butter, their loaves were the closest thing to heaven on earth. But the young monks never ate their own bread fresh, opting to consume it only after they had sliced it and dried it in the sun, and dunked it in soup. Something about better digestion, they had said. But maybe it was because the bread was too pleasurable to eat hot from the oven.
At the training camp, they harvested plants that were edible, but not appetizing. Yet, they had served me the most memorable dessert of my life. To this day, I have never been able to recreate the taste of perfectly ripe dwarf apricots from a roadside Roman tree, mixed with rich yoghurt and cream to make the most sensuous apricot mousse.
More importantly, our backgrounds, values, and habits could not have been more different. None of the secular camp attendees were religious and many were not Christian. I myself was a product of the extravagant 80s, where teenagers reserved the right to do whatever was legal at the time. I watched MTV videos of Madonna, the unapologetic material girl, flaunting her black-laced cleavage. My classmates wore Valentino jeans and owned homes in Capri and Verbier. No one worshipped anything but themselves. The measure of your value resided not in your accomplishments or aspirations, but in your lucky stars: your looks and your family’s fame and fortune.
Meanwhile, my Franciscan friends had made a vow of poverty and chastity—and they were vegetarian too. Whereas we defined ourselves by the limitless possibilities ahead of us, the monks defined themselves by the possibilities they had forgone. As a matter of principle, I never skipped a meal. They fasted all day—and ate only at sundown. Like me, the few other young adults at the hot summer camp were also hitting their physical and psychological limits. While we were complaining, the monks toiled all day for the salvation of a distant Africa.
Despite our human shortcomings and relative lack of discipline, the monks had accepted us into their gigantic teepees—and within their hearts. They believed we were worthy allies in their humanitarian cause—and by extension, they believed in us as worthy human beings.
What still amazes me to this day is that the monks never once sought to convert us, discuss religion, or correct our values in any way. No matter how stark the differences in our personal choices, they accepted the sovereignty of our free will.
It is through their quiet acceptance that they taught me that tolerance was an act of the greatest simplicity. It actually involves more silence than words. For me, many years later, the silence of the monks was worth a million of their words.
I wish I could speak with them today, and find out what they were thinking. I know that they would be mortified that their faith is being misused to advance the political power of a few; to enrich the rich, and to continue policies that hurt the earth. These young men in jeans come from the same long line of monks who braved the plagues of old to minister to the sick. Their belief in the respect of the other runs even deeper than the superficial differences in skin color and religion: it actually extends to their belief that animals too shall not be hurt.
In the end, we never did convince the desert to go green. But in their quiet company, precious internal seeds sprouted in my adolescent mind, without much coaxing. I learned that people can coexist with respect despite their polar opposite life choices. I learned that the religion you practice (or not); the moral choices you make; and the lifestyle you pursue need not separate people into four corners.
Tolerance arises naturally when something really simple happens: both sides stay quiet and keep their discordant opinions to themselves. Peace is achieved through the simple act of a welcoming silence. And in this, it feels like true nonverbal acceptance is more potent than our loud modern-day politically correct assurances. I do not need to scream Black Lives Matter. Buying a song from an African musician counts double (my favorite is Coup de Gueule by Tiken Jah Fakoly for its smart political lyrics).
Fireworks happen when we are tempted to correct, convince, or criticize the other. Free speech is important, of course. But if your goal is peace, it is important that what you choose to say does not provoke others into defending their right to existence. It is by not ceding to the temptation to influence us that the monks had made their greatest impact. It was the seeds they didn’t try to plant that bore the most fruit.
Imagine that the various religions and atheism are like different cuisines, with their own neighborhood establishments serving their faithful clientele. Just because you frequent the steak house every week, does not mean you set fire to the pizzeria.
At some deeper spiritual level hidden to me at the time, the monks must have known that our differences are superficial, and that, as it turns out, one of the strongest things that can unite us is a dream.