My first review of CBR12 was Of Mice and Men, and I noted in the review that it was one of the most depressing books I have ever read. It feels like that book set the tone for 2020. By mid-March, reading for fun was … difficult. All the worries and fears surrounding COVID encroached on everything I read. Now that we have made it to the end of the year and there is a light at the end of the tunnel — a change in administration and the availability of highly effective vaccines — I felt like an appropriate way to end my cannonball would be with a thoughtful book. Markings is such a book and even though it is over 50 years old, its message would resonate with many, particularly in a year like this one.
Markings is a diary of sorts, a collection of the thoughts of Dag Hammarskjold, the highly esteemed second Secretary General of the United Nations who died tragically in a plane crash while on a peace mission to the Congo in 1961. Hammarskjold came from a wealthy and privileged Swedish family. His father had been prime minister, and Dag held a series of important government posts in Sweden before entering the international stage after WWII. He became Secretary General of the UN in 1953 largely because Russia and the US imagined he would be a pliable unassuming bureaucrat. They were in for a quite a surprise. Yet Markings does not address Hammarskjold’s public service or achievements. This is an introspective book that reveals how one of the world’s most influential and respected men was often lonely and depressed as well as being a deeply spiritual man constantly striving to serve others as God would want him to.
Markings is divided by years, starting with 1941-42. Although Sweden was neutral, the war years were dark and hard times for Hammarskjold. His diary entries reveal a man in existential crisis. I was reminded of Camus as he wrote about his sense of isolation, his occasionally suicidal thoughts, and his shame at his own ambition and desire for accolades. As the entries enter the post-war years, Hammarskjold’s feelings of loneliness and lack of connection, despite his brilliant work on the international stage, are striking for their humility and the genuine desire for “communion.” He is very hard on himself and takes himself to task for ambition and feeling hurt when not appreciated because he knows that this is shallow. Hammarskjold’s thoughts are deeply spiritual and he makes frequent references to scripture and Christian writers such as Meister Eckhart.
The entries in Markings read like aphorisms or poems, and a number of them are quite well known. Among my favorites:
“You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds.”
“Never, ‘for the sake of peace and quiet,’ deny your own convictions.”
“It is easy to be nice, even to an enemy — from lack of character.”
“What makes loneliness an anguish
Is not that I have no one to share my burden,
I have only my own burden to bear.”
Markings in the kind of book that one can dip into as needed, reading a few passages or pages at a time. Hammarskjold’s private thoughts, while often dark and self-critical, ultimately point to a higher power and greater goal in life than our own comfort. This book is a timely reminder that we never really know what is going on inside people’s heads, what kind of pain and suffering they carry. It is also a reminder that there are truly good and decent public servants, people who devote their lives to the service of others and the greater good, and who frequently suffer for it. For those who constantly question themselves and beat themselves up for their mistakes, Markings is a reminder that you are not alone. In fact, you are in quite good company. I would recommend Markings for those who perhaps crave a spiritual book and who are comfortable with references to Christian scripture and God.