“Never measure the height of a mountain, until you have reached the top. Then you will see how low it was.” Thus wrote Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat who died on this date, September 18th, 47 years ago (Wikipedia bio). He served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, heavily shaping the office and according to many, including Kofi Annan, he is the greatest person to have held the post; John F. Kennedy praised him as “the greatest statesman of our century” and he remains the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously, having been nominated prior to his death.
Hammarskjöld died in 1961 while on a mission to negotiate a cease-fire between warring factions in the Congo and his plane crashed. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories have grown up surrounding this event, but it appears likely to have been nothing more than an unfortunate accident.
A Christian mystic in the tradition of Thomas à Kempis, Hammarskjöld is remembered now not just for his diplomatic accomplishments but for a thin volume of writings that he contributed to throughout his life which was published posthumously under the title Markings. I find the book remarkable, and would describe it as a cross between the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Thoreau’s Walden. Like the former, it was not intended for publication but merely to collect his thoughts for his own purposes. Here are a few excerpts.
Sun and stillness. Looking down through the jade-green water, you see the monsters of the deep playing on the reef. Is this a reason to be afraid? Do you feel safer when scudding waves hide what lies beneath the surface?
On Christmas Eve, 1956:
Your own efforts “did not bring it to pass,” only God–but rejoice if God found a use for your efforts in His work. Rejoice if you feel that whast you did was “necessary,” but remember, even so, that you were simply the instrument by means of which He added one tiny grain to the Universe He has created for His own purposes.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has placed Hammarskjöld on their calendar of saints, recognizing him annually on this date as a “renewer of society,” a designation he shares with Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Florence Nightingale, among others. He is in very good company.
As a young man he penned the following poem:
Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I–
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.
But in the meantime how grievous the memory
Of hours frittered away.
Hammarskjöld’s tomorrow did not come for decades after that, but ours may come at any time. May Death not find us frittering away the hours.