The pain of sacrifice is relative.
It was difficult for me to take a pass on a lunch date with a friend I hadn’t sat down with for more than a year, but the next day was worse. I had two tickets for a concert of the Minnesota Orchestra performing one of the compositions that had set my heart aflame when I was a teenager, and I was going to share the experience with my brother-in-law in observance of his being three years cancer-free. As it turned out, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was closed to the public, but the orchestra and its world-renowned piano soloist played for the radio audience, as we practiced social distancing at home in our recliners.
It wasn’t quite the same.
As moving as the concerto was, I was riveted by the second half of the concert, the “Symphony No. 7,” by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Composed as a symbol of defiance to Nazi aggression, the symphony is dubbed “Leningrad,” as it was performed in the heart of that city, now St. Petersburg, during what became the longest siege of a city in history. Adolf Hitler, with his characteristic narcissism, had been so confident of a swift German victory that he had printed in advance invitations to the celebration in the iconic Hotel Astoria in Leningrad, after which he had plotted to utterly destroy the city and all its inhabitants (not to be bothered with prisoners). In defiance of Hitler, the symphony was performed by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra on the exact date of the anticipated victory celebration, with loudspeakers broadcasting the music through the desolate streets and even wafting across the Nazi lines. It might have been a happy ending had the story stopped there.
Unfortunately, the concert was only 11 months into the 2½-years-long siege. In all, the Russian casualties numbered more than 1 million dead with another 2½ million wounded or injured. As the siege dragged on, survivors were living on bread made substantially from sawdust. There is more than anecdotal evidence of cannibalism, including a mother suffocating her 18-month-old child to feed her other children and a husband killing his wife to feed his sons and nieces.
In American history, extreme hunger was widespread during the early years of the settlement of Jamestown. A femur bone discovered there with markings of a cleaver bears witness to cannibalism.
American anthropologist Margaret Mead has declared the first sign of civilization as the discovery of a human femur that had healed. Animals suffering broken legs in the wild were vulnerable to predators. A healed femur gives evidence of a caring community. According to Mead, “Helping someone through difficulty is where civilization starts.”
I came late to poetry. (My wife, the veteran English teacher, often lamented, “I can’t believe I married you!”) One of the first poems I memorized was, “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled.”
It seems to me that during these days of fear and uncertainty, two roads present themselves. We can take the road represented by local gun shops being emptied of weapons and ammunition, watching out for ourselves, and deciding who are the disposable ones among us. Or we can take the road less traveled, the road represented by the ancient healed femur: the road of caring and community.
As I write, I mark a milestone birthday, a new decade that puts me in the group with the not-so-dubious distinction of being disposable. I ask the question Martin Luther impressed upon me during my confirmation years: “What does this mean?”
The Rev. David Tryggestad of Duluth is a retired pastor and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.