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Exploring Dag Hammarskjöld’s engaged spirituality

Does the way choose us, or are we as individuals at liberty to have the freedom to choose the way? I was left with that fundamental question to contemplate upon reading the recently released book edited by Hans Kristian Simensen. This carefully crafted volume is based on earlier meditations by Archbishop Emeritus K.G. Hammar on Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings as well as the Emeritus Archbishop’s conversations with others on Hammarskjöld’s spiritual legacy.

The Way Chose You. Archbishop Emeritus KG Hammar’s Meditations upon Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings 2018 offers an appealing combination of deep thoughts and photos capturing the spiritual dimensions of Dag Hammarskjöld’s entries in his posthumously published notebook. The 127 page book is a result of the activities by the diocese of Gothenburg’s Cultural Cooperation Initiative, published by the Church of Sweden. The voices of seven others in conversation with K.G. Hammar shine through, including the singer and activist Patti Smith and Ingrid Betancourt, former politician and anti-corruption campaigner.

Returning to the question aroused in me: ‘does the way choose us, or are we as individuals at liberty and have the freedom to choose the way?’, the title of this compilation suggests the former. The Way Chose You quotes a late entry in the notebook Dag Hammarskjöld left behind. Posthumously published as Markings it has become a ‘spiritual classic’, revealing a side of the United Nations second Secretary-General largely unknown during his lifetime.

On 6 July 1961, just ten weeks before his untimely death in a plane crash near the mining town of Ndola in Northern Rhodesia, Hammarskjöld associated the challenges he was facing as the highest international civil servant with his earlier mountain hiking experiences in the north of Sweden. He was in the midst of a crisis in the Congo, which at the height of the Cold War could have triggered another international conflict. His effort to find a solution was the target of fierce criticism by all influential states in the East and the West. Ending another of his many poetically phrased entries, he stated: ‘The way chose you – And you must be thankful.

This sounds as pre-determined; that the battle of life, understood by the Protestant ethic is an ongoing duty to serve and is destiny and destination. It was a view Hammarskjöld articulated repeatedly. But he also considered it as a matter of personal choice. As he noted in 1950: ‘Don’t be afraid of yourself, live your individuality to the full – but for the good of others. Don’t copy others in order to buy fellowship, or make convention your law instead of living the righteousness. To become free and responsible. For this alone was man created, and he who fails to take the Way which could have been his shall be lost eternally.

And in 1951 he entered: ‘The man who is unwilling to accept the axiom that he who chooses one path is denied the others must try to persuade himself, I suppose, that the logical thing to do is to remain at the crossroads. But do not blame the man who does take a path – nor commend him, either.

At the end, it seems, Hammarskjöld was as much of the view that he had chosen a way as that the way had chosen him. And he was guided by what he called in 1950 ‘A modest wish: that our doings and dealings may be of a little more significance to life than a man’s dinner jacket is to his digestion.

This combination of perspectives already testifies to the diversity – if not ambiguity – of thoughts Hammarskjöld engaged with. His inner dialogue was not a straight forward affair but an almost daily battle. And it documented the contradictions, the doubts, the determination, the beliefs and the search we are all facing when embarking on ‘The longest journey’, as ‘the journey inwards. / Of him who has chosen his destiny, / Who has started upon his quest / For the source of his being / (is there a source?).’ As this entry of 1950 suggests, there remains the individual choice of destiny. This brings to the fore the political and the matter of personal decision to be made in life. We are neither doomed nor saved. The choice is ours.

Dag Hammarskjöld’s world was one as secular as it was spiritual. It was the ability to combine both, to find inner strength in the values in order to act politically with determination. The two were inseparable. He chose as much the way as the way chose him. As he entered on 30 August 1956: ‘It is an idea you are serving – an idea which must be victorious if a mankind worth the name is to survive.

This entry motivated K.G. Hammar to the following insights, which I consider as the most appropriate way to conclude my inconclusive deliberations: ‘it is important not to confuse the organisation, institution, apparatus, temporary tasks, the temporary creation that the idea has been embodied in, with the actual idea. Ideas cannot live without bodies. But it is crucial to see the difference between the outer apparatus, the outer temporariness, and the idea that the outer apparatus has been tasked with bearing. What I think has helped him to deal with the awful criticism he received many times while at the UN was precisely that the UN as an organisation was not the main thing – the idea of serving justice, peace and humanity was.’

Henning Melber By Henning Melber
Henning Melber is a Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, as well as a Senior Research Associate at the Nordic Africa Institute. He has served as Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kassel University, Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit in Windhoek, and Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. Henning is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. Henning directed the Foundation from 2006 to 2012. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and Development Studies.