The touch of the heart

Life's lessons are very individual. In most ways there is a great loneness to our maturing. But there is also a unifying aspect to individuality that can draw us all together.

This understanding began to dawn on me last year while I was attending college in Germany. There is a great deal of activism there among the students. There are negative aspects to this - ill-will, riots, demonstrations just for the sake of demonstrating, but the underlying cause of the activism is a dissatisfaction with the complacency of an outdated system. The students are looking for the freedom to express themselves in a valid way, without hypocrisy. They want honesty, sincerity, and goodness. Their approach is a bit simplistic, not taking into account the deepened sense of values that must go along with substantial progress. Not having any tried course to follow, they set off rather blindly, but they do set off, hoping to do away with coldness and injustice.

In one of my classes, on the literature of the not-terribly-well-known Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the six American students in the class were provided a tutor by our program director. The tutor was not a literature student but was a German. His name was Gregor and he was a massive man, as big as three of us put together. With long dark hair, and a formless growth called a beard, he looked more like a bear than a man. But he was as gentle as a lamb. In many ways he typified this student activism; always ready to argue a theoretical point for any of three dozen causes, easily caught up in the emotion of the moment, supporting all the popular causes that promised progress for the masses, but willing to abandon a favorite idea rather than risk failure, never getting far beyond the talking stage, but hoping nonetheless to effect some change for the better.

We would meet in cafes for our tutoring sessions, and discuss anything but Hofmannsthal. We talked about movies, cultural differences, educational systems, politics, social values. At times Gregor would try to break through what he felt were our middle-class American views, so different from his liberal, humanistic ones. Other times he would listen closely to our ideas, weighing their validity and substance.

Did any of us know what we were really trying to say? Our discussions would ramble and weave and drag, and all the time we were laughably gaining college credit in German literature.

Our last session, just before we Americans were to leave the country, was held in his apartment. He had baked several special German cakes for us as a farewell gesture. Our talk went along the familiar lines - perhaps more sincere, less oriented to the masses, dealing with individuals, almost reaching the heart. As we were leaving, I was the first out the door and was the only one to notice something special. As we went through the door, he touched each one of us. Obviously the conventional handshake would have been unacceptable; no one had even considered it. But that touch - barely perceptible, indeed unnoticed by some - symbolized more than all our discussions had been able to convey. In that touch was the message of the heart.

How much it said: the prayer for peace, the acceptance of human-ness, and of us capitalists, the unlimited support of our own goals and aims. It showed what he stood for, and the sincerity of his faith. It showed the integrity of a yearning heart. It also asked questions: are we on the right track, am I alone in my search?

In that instant, I saw his doubts and indecisiveness fade. In the moment of that touch, the liberal facade and its limits fell away, and I could clearly see a heart yearning for individuality and companionship, goodness and freedom. Not for political or social change, nor for a better system, but seeking a greater appreciation of life, an assurance that he was not alone, that others had the same goal.

I sadly confess to knowing Hofmannsthal no better now than before, but the prize I gained as a result of that class means more to me than much of my entire college education. I yearn as well to see the Gregor in all of us, the purposeful searching heart willing to explore without fear, with a lunging desire to progress in spite of all odds - to touch intuitively everything that offers more than we're accustomed to accept. Can we fail to see this yearning in others? In ourselves?

Can we afford not to see it?

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