For all the years that I have known him, I had never seen C.W. like this. Oh, I had seen him serious before. Even a visitor from another galaxy gets serious when looking at what he calls, “the collective state of hate and anger” of our species.
But this time proved different. He was, one might say, somber. His appearance was even low-key. He had assumed the shape of a middle-aged man with a receding hairline, dressed well and moving with a fluid grace as we took a slow walk on the city sidewalks. If I had to say he resembled any real person, it would be the late newsman Walter Cronkite, with a bit of President Jimmy Carter thrown into the mix. He said nothing for a while and then stopped, looked towards the river, and turned to me.
“Sad day,” he said. He nodded as if approving his own thoughts, and continued walking. “Sad day indeed.”
“Mind telling my what’s on your mind?” I said.
He kept walking but gave me a look that expressed surprise and disappoint, all at once. “Elie Wiesel died,” he said. “Haven’t you heard?”
“I heard,” I said, “but I had no idea that you would have known of him.”
He stopped so suddenly that a bicyclist swerved around him, lost control, and careened down the bank and into the river. He watched, and for the only time that morning, a faint smile appeared on his face. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, and he looked at me as if I had said something that offended him. “Know of him?” he said. “He is one of the few of your species whose thoughts are taught to the young on my home planet.”
“Oh,” I said. “I had no idea.”
“You have no idea about a great number of things,” he said. Derision dripped from his craggy face. As I say, I had never seen him quite like this. Then he softened. “Hope,” said. Then he continued walking. “You think your species is the only one in the galaxy that encounters despair so profound that hope is its only salvation?”
It was my turn to be serious. “Even in advanced civilizations such as yours?”
“Particularly in advanced civilizations,” he said. “The more advanced, the more aware of circumstances and the more fearful of possible consequences. Species such as yours have the built-in defense of stupidity.”
That put me on the defensive. “Aren’t you being a little harsh? Some of us understand, at least some of us. We know the dangers that lurk in the future.”
“I have only one word to say on that,” he said. He stopped, stooped, picked up a discarded Styrofoam cup, and carried it to a waste receptacle. He continued walking for a few steps, then said, “Donald Trump.”
“That’s two words,” I said.
“No,” he said. “It’s one word describing a phenomenon for which you and your species are profoundly guilty.”
“Now wait,” I said. “Only maybe 30 percent or so of us are guilty. That’s a statistically reliable segment of our society, the segment that thinks Elvis is alive, that Lyndon Johnson murdered JFK, that George Bush bombed the Trade Center Towers, and that a snake talked to a woman.”
He shook his head and sadness seemed literally to drip from him. “What percentage of Germans,” he said, “do you think were active Nazis?”
That stumped me. Before I could speak, he said, “On a more positive note, what percentage of colonists actually took an active part in your American revolution?”
“You’re mixing things up,” I said. I started to say more, but at that instant, the really scary thing happened. As he turned to face me full on, his features morphed, first the nose, then the mouth, then the eyes, into sad globes that opened to display the width and breath of human suffering. A shock of unruly hair completed the look. Elie Wiesel stood before me.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference,” he said. “The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”