In 1492, the last Moorish king opened the gates of the Alhambra and surrendered Granada to the Catholic Kings. It marked the end of 700 years of Moorish rule in Al Andalus, as Spain was known during a time when ordinary Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in relative peace and prosperity.
It was the latest chapter in the long sigh of history that saw the dreams of one group fall as another rises — from Celt to Roman to Visigoth to Moor to the Catholic Kings of Castille, Leon, Navarre and Aragon. Each brought with them an end to one way of life and the beginning of a new. We resign these changes to history, conclude that not one is better than the other, and assign the emotional turmoil of entire generations past to a few intellectual footnotes.
Today, I retraced the retreat of Muhammad XII’s entourage, a thousand strong and then some, across the Pillars of Hercules into Morocco; and I reflected on my past month here in Spain. I reflected with compassion and admiration for the Romans who brought roads, aqueducts, and writing to the Celts; for the Moors who brought relative prosperity and enforced religious tolerance to Europe; and for the Spaniards who have had such a profound influence on culture the world over that may save us all yet. Each of these happened, to one extent or another, by force and the grace of those who used their power to bring about positive change.
I’ve also reflected with sorrow and indignation for the Celts who for thousands of years lived off the land in perhaps no greater or less happiness than what the Romans brought upon them; for the early Christian Visigoths who were undoubtedly terrified by the new and strange customs of the Moors that had overtaken their land; and for those who suffered under the Spaniard excesses of the Inquisition, colonialism, and civil war. Each of these happened, to one extent or another, by force and the arrogance of those who used power to bring about harmful change.
It’s helped me find peace with the complexity of my own life and choices. I’ve internalized that there are some things — most things, perhaps — that I can’t change, such as the machinations of centuries past that gave rise to whatever privilege or lack thereof we were born into; the present political climate in the United States that is poised to strengthen the patriarchy; and decisions that loved ones near and far make for themselves irrespective of how I might perceive they could impact their own happiness or the collective good. I’ve also been reminded that what I can control are my own character and choices.
I was raised in the Spaniard tradition, a fierce can-do attitude that echoes the words of William Earnest Henley, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” I’ve long understood this to mean that I am empowered make my own luck; to use whatever power I have to change the circumstances around me for good; and to change myself when I’m not living up to my fullest potential, however difficult that may be. I believe there is no greater moral obligation, and that to shirk from it is lazy and irresponsible. Or so I’ve believed, and I still do.
But this month, sitting in the land of my foreparents, has also taught me humility — humility for that which I cannot or perhaps should not change even when I can. I’ve occasionally harmed myself with worry and frustration that I am not able to do more to stem the abuses of patriarchy and capitalism against those who are not as well equipped to weather them. I’ve occasionally harmed people I love, too, in well-intentioned efforts to captain the ship in co-dependent ways not only for myself but for their own good or that of the community. I’ve also learned that sometimes the best way to respond to a loved one’s need is to say no, so that I may remain healthy and happy enough to keep showing up for the long haul.
I can hold that these truths are not oppositional, but facets of the same. I’ve found no objective measure of how best to find a balance, and my efforts may not always be appreciated in this lifetime or by those I love most; but I thank my Spanish stars every day for the courage and conviction to try.
Mi querida España, gracias por mantenerme fiel a quien soy yo y a quien seré yo.