The extraordinary inner life of a great public figure
When Dag Hammarskjöld, second secretary-general of the United Nations (1953-61), reached New York City from his native Sweden to take up his duties, he was an object of discreet curiosity. Little known beyond elite diplomatic circles, a passably handsome bachelor in his late forties, now called to the world’s most prominent diplomatic post, he experimented in the early months with communications large and small. Among the smallest: while furnishing his apartment on the Upper East Side, he agreed to a house call by a journalist who specialized in interior decoration. The decor was spare, in the best Scandinavian taste. The journalist must have searched high and low for something juicy to write and, failing that, recorded a comment by Hammarskjöld that has a long echo: “Monastic, isn’t it?” This can be said of his life. There must be ground rules, though I have no idea where to find them written down, governing how to interpret the force of desire in a highly dedicated life—how to understand it as an evolving, contributing energy rather than a fixed Caliban growling from the forest floor of oneself. The first rule must be not to put too much emphasis on erotic desire. While it is surely true that no one, including Mr. Hammarskjöld, skips untouched past the need for sexual intimacy, monastic temperaments struggle to “place” it in their inner economy rather than let it run loose. Another rule must be to recognize desire at different levels, so different that a separate word is needed at each level: monastic temperaments, when true to their calling, are striving temperaments that instinctively need to move on, to refine, to purify and focus. And the best of them know that one can’t leave desire behind: it comes right along and asks to be part of things. Because Hammarskjöld was a religious man with the custom in later years of recording poetically conceived prayers in his private journal, we should expect to encounter the desire best called wish—wish for the good, wish for guidance and willing obedience, wish for depth of contact with the One whom he addressed in prayer. Because he was relentlessly aware of his inner life, we can expect to find him struggling like all others to live by his ideals despite countercurrents. And because in his life’s work he was a peacemaker, often negotiating with the world’s most driven and self-assured leaders, his deep desire for peace met many immoveable or scarcely moveable objects.
The desire that faces complex, resistant structures such as the UN itself or the nations of the world structures requiring insight, method, and management—isn’t sensual. It’s cool, even if heated in expression when heat is needed. It is searching, perspicacious, exploratory; it probes and pokes; it questions; it stacks realities together in novel ways through creative imagination and takes them apart again to check their fit. It looks for lines of connection between what is and what could be—what could be better, more just and fruitful. And it engages directly when the time comes: “Every hour eye to eye,” Hammarskjöld once wrote in his journal. Is this desire at work? There can be no doubt of that. It is desire channeled and focused, desire serving well beyond itself and its own flickers of need. Work toward peace is risky and difficult, and in Hammarskjöld’s practice a rigorous discipline. During a crisis he faced as secretary-general, he reported this to a friend:
One of the lasting experiences from the last months and weeks is that, with our so called rising civilization, we do in no way see a decline in the art of lying. The modern media of communication, the modern entanglement of interests all over the world, have opened the door to a paradise for those who fight with words representing mala fide assumptions, false presentations, invidious comments, outright slander—and so on. If I were Hieronymus Bosch, I could paint a beautiful triptych in the colors of Hell and in celebration of this new great Harlot. But why be bitter.
The outer form of Dag Hammarskjöld’s immensely accomplished life was visible to all: within little more than a year after taking office, he was recognized by world leaders and diplomatic colleagues as a perfectly remarkable champion of the UN agenda and values. Owing to his practical wisdom, resourcefulness, and discretion, adversaries trusted him to hear their unedited views and uncover whatever common ground could be found between them. Through personal negotiation with the leaders of the People’s Republic of China at a time when that country had not yet been admitted to UN membership, he demonstrated a capacity to solve completely puzzling problems. “Let Dag do it,” became the solution of last resort, reliable when enough of the Great Powers (permanent members of the Security Council) lined up behind him. His diplomatic improvisations—for example, shuttle diplomacy in the Near East, and UN-flagged peacekeeping forces—became norms that continue in use today. He anticipated the rapid decolonization of Africa and the needs of its new nations, and died in an air crash while attempting to stop an outbreak of war in the newly independent Congo. His person, his voice were the United Nations in that era; his thinking, though muted now, still echoes in the corridors of what he called with some intimacy “this house,” the perennially beautiful riverside home of the UN in midtown Manhattan. At a gathering in the fall of 1953, he said, “Our purpose is peace, nothing but peace.” This too sends a long echo.
Had he accomplished all this and no more, Hammarskjöld would be an illustrious figure in the history of the Cold War and of the UN. But he was much more, and it is this that makes him important for our time.
There is a new question working its way through American thought and attitudes, not prominently at the national level but unmistakably at the level of communities, institutes, projects, and broadly recognized needs. The question is effectively expressed by the opening lines of the mission statement of Garrison Institute, a cultural center on the lower Hudson River:
Garrison Institute applies the transformative power of contemplation to today’s pressing social and environmental concerns, helping build a more compassionate, resilient future. We envision and work to build a future in which contemplative ideas and methods are increasingly mainstream, and are applied at scale to create the conditions for positive, systemic social and environmental change.
This is programmatic language, intended to inform rather than move, but it publicly summarizes values and intentions that privately guided Hammarskjöld’s approach to himself and to public service a half-century ago. And because he found his way brilliantly, he is one to whom we can look both for large ideas and for sand—for the grit of working things through. “Blood, grime, sweat, earth,” he once asked in his journal, “where are these in your world of will? Everywhere—the ground from which the flame ascends straight upwards.” By his Schopenhauer-like phrase, “world of will,” he must have meant the world one tries to shape, the world desired and sought.
Dag Hammarskjöld lived two lives. The first was what he called “this enormously exposed and published life” as secretary-general of the United Nations. The second was intensely private, nonetheless surmised by a very few friends who understood that they could speak with him about certain things—for example, an Indian couple, close students of Vedanta, could count on him to join their conversation as one who belonged in it. Only after his death, with the publication in 1964 of his journal, under the title MARKINGS, did it become clear in the English-speaking world (and a year earlier in Scandinavia) that Hammarskjöld had been a religious seeker for whom certain source texts—the Gospels, Psalms, Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis, the early Chinese classics—provided steady inspiration and guidance. It is true that on rare occasions during the UN years he would say or do things that were self-evidently rooted in an otherwise undisclosed point of view. For example, in a public talk in the fall of 1953, enlarging on a thought from the TAO TE CHING, he said, “We cannot mould the world as masters of a material thing. Columbus did not reach the East Indies. But we can influence the development of the world from within as a spiritual thing.” But those occasions were infrequent and scarcely anyone, so to speak, took him up on it.
Had religion been merely words for him, there would be little need to take notice; but it was more. It was a Way, fully developed, just what we mean today when we speak of spiritual paths. It imposed a personal discipline, exacted a price, opened inner landscapes of mind, heart, and body, commanded a certain quality of relationship with others—and provided resources to go on. That he walked his Way alone had certain advantages, notably self-reliance. A sangha or spiritual community is, among other things, cozy; he had none, though in his work at the UN his immediate associates were men and women of great merit whom he greatly appreciated, and he had friends—few of them close, many of them distinguished—among writers, artists, and theater people. His inner life was, as he once wrote, strictly “a negotiation between himself and God.” This had certain disadvantages. Above all it contributed to recurrent, consuming loneliness that he struggled to accept as a destined feature of his individual Way. True, his sense of spiritual companionship extended with immediacy far into the past and into other cultures; he knew how to read; the thoughts and language even of authors remote in time lived fully in him, as if spoken just today. For example, reading in Arthur Waley’s classic book, THE WAY AND ITS POWER, Hammarskjöld picked out and brought into a public talk a passage about a band of peacemakers in ancient China, which reflected his own weary perseverance at the time:
Constantly rebuffed but never discouraged, they went round from state to state helping people to settle their differences, arguing against wanton attack and pleading for the suppression of arms, that the age in which they lived might be saved from its state of continual war. To this end they interviewed princes and lectured the common people, nowhere meeting with any great success, but obstinately persisting in their task, till kings and commoners alike grew weary of listening to them. Yet undeterred they continued to force themselves on people’s attention.
This was his activity; his commitment to peacemaking and global welfare was of just this kind. But what inner vision, what discipline, what solace sustained him? What did he know of the “transformative power of contemplation” and how did he apply it to “today’s … pressing concerns?” A reporter from the internal newsletter of the United Nations Secretariat rather diffidently approached Hammarskjöld in January 1958 to interview him. As published in SECRETARIAT NEWS for February 14th of that year, their exchange was wide-ranging. Just at the end, a question so compelled Hammarskjöld’s interest that he returned to it a few days later in a personal letter to a Swedish friend:
REPORTER: One last question, Mr. Hammarskjöld: What, in your opinion, are the main qualities that an international official should possess?
DH: Well, that is a difficult question to answer straight away. You should give me a little while to think about it. First off, however, I would say that a heightened awareness combined with an inner quiet are among these qualities. Also, a certain humility, which helps you to see things through the other person’s eye, to reconstruct his case, without losing yourself, without being a chameleon.
A little later, Hammarskjöld wrote as follows to his friend:
The other day I was forced by a journalist to try to formulate my views on the main requirements of somebody who wishes to contribute to the development of peace and reason. I found no better formulation than this: “He must push his awareness to the utmost limit without losing his inner quiet, he must be able to see with the eyes of the others from within their personality without losing his own.”
There are five invisible realities here: inner quiet, awareness pushed to the limit, a certain humility, permitting one to see from the other’s point of view, without losing oneself. To speak of this integrated movement of awareness and kinship as “mindfulness”—a term Hammarskjöld may have encountered but to my knowledge didn’t use—is to miss its singularity. Better to think of it as something Hammarskjöld advised, something he had mastered or very nearly, something very good. The two passages make clear that Hammarskjöld approached the diplomatic day, the day of the peacemaker, as an exercise in awareness and contact, and did so without calling attention to his approach.
“The international civil servant,” he once said, “must keep himself under the strictest observation.” By the time he became secretary-general, he had been following this practice for many years, and if it had professional benefits—clarity about one’s motives, words, and perspectives—those benefits have to be viewed as secondary to the central need served by what he called “conscious self-scrutiny.” Within the many crosscurrents, desires, and hesitations of his own person, he had long ago gone in search of himself. He was one who could not live, perhaps literally, without self-knowledge. Among the resources and methods he collected as a young man and progressively refined in later years, self-observation was key. It opened him to himself, and therefore to others; he learned to interpret himself, and therefore others; he learned to be dreadfully honest with himself—and therefore to forgive others. The sound of his self-observation, as recorded in MARKINGS, is sometimes nearly unbearable: dry, severe, accurate. We can take just one from the UN years as typifying many others:
Do you still need to evoke memories of a self-imposed humiliation in order to extinguish a smoldering self-admiration?
To be pure in heart means, among other things, to have freed yourself from all such half-measures: from a tone of voice which places you in the limelight, a furtive acceptance of some desire of the flesh which ignores the desire of the spirit, a self-righteous reaction to others in their moments of weakness.
Look at yourself in that mirror when you wish to be praised—or to judge. Do so without despairing.
That mirror was one resource; there were others. He had discovered the value—and sheer existence—of stillness and silence through two unlike sources: the northern Swedish wilderness (he was a skilled mountaineer) and close reading of Meister Eckhart, the medieval preacher and mystic “from whom God hid nothing.” The beauty and silence of remote Lapland stunned him into a sense of reality here and now; it was a lesson he never forgot. The grandeur, mystery, and precision of Meister Eckhart’s explorations of inner experience at the far reaches of perception stunned him no less. Writing in 1956 about an Eckhart sermon he had been rereading, Hammarskjöld concluded:
“Of the Eternal Birth”—to me, this now says everything there is to be said about what I have learned and have still to learn.
“The soul that would experience this birth must detach herself from all outward things: within herself completely at one with herself. . . . You must have an exalted mind and a burning heart in which, nevertheless, reign silence and stillness.”
And he knew how to pray. Lutheran, raised in the Church of Sweden among active and even activist Christians, personally introduced as an adolescent to Albert Schweitzer and a member of the audience that first heard Schweitzer develop his principle of “Reverence for Life,” he drew away from the formal church during his university studies but in time found his way back, not to the church as such but to the substance of Christian faith. To know how to pray is not a small thing; that opening upward, its willingness to be nothing, yet to speak, in relation to the One whom he invariably addressed as “Thou,” endowed Hammarskjöld with breadth of understanding and inner poise. He did not live only in relation to Nations, Powers, Dominions. Insofar as any modern person can, he lived also in relation to what he described late in life as “Someone or Something” that had called him, and to whose call he had answered, “Yes.” We can only allude here to the core of inner peace conferred on him by his religious life. Soon after accepting the post of secretary-general, he wrote in his journal:
Maturity: among other things, a new lack of self-consciousness—the kind you can only attain when you have become entirely indifferent to yourself through an absolute assent to your fate.
He who has placed himself in God’s hand stands free vis-à-vis men: he is entirely at his ease with them, because he has granted them the right to judge.
If he was one of the chosen in his suffering, in the life of self-sacrifice and utterly dedicated service he led, he was also one of the chosen in the solace he received. Markings records what can only be called mystical experiences of great depth and beauty, often as glimpses of what he named “the unheard-of,” more rarely as exquisite dreams noted down sometime later. There must have been some relation between the nearly relentless pace and tension of his life as secretary-general and the tranquility that entered him in private times. On some weekends, free of urgencies, he would host dinners with companions who could equal him in conversation, listen to recorded music, hike in the woods of
Putnam and Dutchess counties, think about things—and turn to the intimacy of his journal, where he elaborated prayers and recorded clarities and questions. We would know nothing of his mystical experience, had he not chosen to tell us.
—a contact with reality, light and intense like the touch of a loved hand: a union in self-surrender without self-destruction, where the heart is lucid and the mind loving. In sun and wind, how near and how remote—. How different from what the knowing ones call mysticism.
This article offers only a taste of a most complex life and achievement. Does Dag Hammarskjöld foreshadow a new statesmanship—the very thing needed, or something much like it, to perceive and manage the almost absurdly difficult issues of our time? If so, may it occur in his manner: understated, discreet, modest, relying on the intrinsic charisma of truth and decency rather than personal enchantment, resourceful in exploring alternatives, firm in action. He was the first person Western by birth, education, and basic conviction to discover within hard political processes the need for what we are likely today to call enlightened mind; the first to convert high teachings into daily practice at the level of world affairs; and the first, through his posthumously published journal, to lay bare his own struggles as a sample of what might, after all, be possible.
He was surprisingly relaxed about the future—at least sometimes. At a journalists’ luncheon in the spring of 1958, celebrating his election to a second term as secretary-general, he made some extended remarks, including the following:
I cannot belong to or join those who believe in our movement toward catastrophe. I believe in growth, a growth to which we have a responsibility to add our few fractions of an inch. [This] is not the facile faith of generations before us, who thought that everything was arranged for the best in the best of worlds…. It is in a sense a much harder belief—the belief and faith that the future will be all right because there will always be enough people to fight for a decent future.
Speaking in this way, he was the Hammarskjöld the public knew: clear-minded, realistic yet forward-looking, inspiring without showiness. In his journal, where we can know something of his inner life, he recognized the price that he himself paid, and that others might need to pay who desire effective roles in achieving that decent future. He wrote there:
Each day the first day: each day a life.
Each morning we must hold out the chalice
of our being to receive, to carry, and
give back. It must be held out empty—for
the past must only be reflected in its polish,
its shape, its capacity. ♦
Dag Hammarskjöld, MARKINGS, trans. W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg (New York: Knopf, 1964).
Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote, eds., PUBLIC PAPERS OF THE SECRETARIES-GENERAL OF THE UNITED NATIONS, II-V: DAG HAMMARSKJÖLD (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972-74).
Brian Urquhart, HAMMARSKJOLD (New York: Knopf, 1972).
Manuel Fröhlich, POLITICAL ETHICS AND THE UNITED NATIONS: DAG HAMMARSKJÖLD AS SECRETARY-GENERAL (London and New York: Routledge, 2008).
WWW.DAG-HAMMARSKJOLD.COM (Roger Lipsey’s Web site exploring Hammarskjöld’s political wisdom, with links to other online resources).