“Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied…”
-Letter From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, October 26th, 1962
“I don’t agree, Mr. President.”
-Llewellyn Thompson to President Kennedy, in response to Kennedy’s statement that an acceptable diplomatic solution was no longer possible. October 27th, 1962
I recently fought with a friend. I don’t like that, but it happens, and I think I’m wondering What’s next?–or maybe, just as accurately, what’s now? In parts of my life they’ve been a good friend and we’ve grown together. In other moments we’ve felt far away, and in other moments we’ve bristled. But now, in the middle of this fight, after I’ve said things that don’t sound like what I meant to say and they have done the same (at least, I hope they have; otherwise, some of what they’ve said is pretty final), I find myself sitting here looking out the window with a few words from Khrushchev and Thompson playing in my head.
Both of them emphasize not doing. Khrushchev feels how the Americans and Russians are pulling on this “knot of war,” and everyone can see the destruction that could follow. But they could stop pulling, Khrushchev says. Thompson refuses the perspective of his President: “I don’t agree.” Here we are on ground we think we can’t give up, here we are, angry, and pulling toward anger. It feels like there’s nothing else to do. But there is.
I wonder why it’s so hard to stop arguing, stop sharing those little flames that heat the pot toward a moment when it really will be too late to take things back. Is it because I’m attached to being right? Is it because I want to feel respected, and I don’t? Is it because I’ve imagined the situation as a contest in which someone will win and someone will lose? Am I scared that, unless we both stop pulling in our tug o’ war, a pause from me will just mean I get pulled off my feet? Is it just because I’m afraid, and letting my fear lead?
All of those, I suppose, in different amounts, and probably with some other ingredients thrown in for good measure. Whatever the reason, I definitely tie knots. I definitely keep pulling on them, not because I want to, not because I hope for or intend the future that this knot ties me to, but because I don’t see how to stop, how to turn toward something new. But I can stop. Perhaps Khrushchev and Thompson say that stopping, that choosing a new path, often starts by not doing.
We are ready for this, writes Khrushchev at the end of his letter. Ready to relax the forces pulling on our rope, and then, after a breath, in a calmer moment, ready to untie the knot.