It has been a week and I have not written about Paris. Such is not out of character. I tend to avoid commenting on many things. But I see this is not necessarily possible. It is not that my sadness has not joined the world's sadness at this atrocity. And yet words have failed me, not just here and now but all week. I suppose I was trying to shape the words, trying to write something grand, not letting my heart say what it wanted to say, not letting the words be what they needed to be.
In a watershed moment, I reread Eve Ensler's play, Necessary Targets, which had been heavily on my mind as I contemplate both the sadness and loss and the complicated dance of anger, cries for retaliation, cries for peace, and various knee jerk reactions that have surged through the media. Some of these reactions upset me even more than the tragedy itself, as it is feeding our fear that leads into further darkness. Feeding our fear does not honor the dead; it objectifies them yet again, using them as a means to an end, and end that merely leads to more bloodshed and more death; feeding our fears means the terrorists have won, they have won the battle for our souls.
But what does a play about Bosnian Refugees have to do with bombings in Paris? Absolutely nothing. Absolutely everything. I saw the play in the summer of 2000, before the terrorist attacks in New York, before so much it seems, but the play has remained with me. The book came out much later, but in reading the words of the play, I still hear the voices of those actresses from that summer long ago, I still feel that shock of recognition and compassion and awareness, the same shock that Paris brings: The compassion for the families, the shocked realization that these were people just like us, that we, too, are not safe, that this place in which we live our lives in relative peace and safety is such a fragile place, and we hold beauty and compassion far too lightly.
It is easier for us to distance ourselves from the horror of war, of tragedy, when we cannot relate it to ourselves, to our lives, to our actual experiences and the people and/or places we know. We could distance ourselves from the horror of Bosnia, mostly because most of us were not familiar with Bosnia before the war. We can distance ourselves from the hundreds of innocents who die in the Middle East because we do not think of them as innocents, as individuals, but as shell people, the other, with whom we are at war. We set up boundaries and distance ourselves, just as the two women who went to Bosnia in Ensler's play distance themselves from the women they are purportedly trying to help.
One of the powerful figures in this play, Zlata, was a pediatrician, formerly head of pediatrics at a major urban hospital, a woman who once led a civilized, urban life, a life we would recognize in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. As she spoke I could easily imagine her, stopping for coffee on the way to work, chatting with friends and colleagues, easy and comfortable in her life:
"You don't understand that this happened to us--to real people. We were just like you, we weren't ready for this--nothing in our experience prepared us--there were no signs--we weren't fighting for centuries--it didn't come out of our perverted lifestyle--you all want it to be logical--you want us to be different than you are so you can convince yourselves it wouldn't happen there, where you are. That's why you turn us into stories, into beasts, Communists, people who live in a strange country and speak a strange language--then you can feel safe"
Paris is different. Paris is not a war zone. Paris hits far too close to home. Paris shocks us out of our complacency. The people who died were people just like you and me. They had mothers, siblings, children of their own. The terrorists too had mothers, they too are more than just the other, more than just terrorists, because surely once they were people not so different from any of us. We do not know. Necessary Targets brought home to me how much we build walls around ourselves, thinking our safety, our boundaries, and our bubbles protect us, but they do not.
I mourn for the families of those who died in Paris. But those families are no different from all the other families of those who have died, some of them in war zones, some of them innocents, some of them killed by our own bullets and missiles. I mourn for those who have died because of poverty and neglect, those who have suffered because we are too good at distancing ourselves and setting boundaries, because we are too good at believing our boundaries protect us.
I mourn for the soldiers. I mourn for those who succumb to the power of fear, who think that revenge and retaliation is the answer when it is really just a path into further darkness. By striking back we give the terrorists what they want; we justify their holy war, we justify their actions, and the dead become sacrifices. I mourn for the mothers of those terrorists, for surely no mother wants such a fate for her babies. Who will hold the mothers and comfort them in their grief? Already we pull back, guilt by association. We build walls and more walls and believe that our strength is in our walls. But it is not. Our strength is not in denying evil. Our strength is in learning to overcome it, learning to connect to each other and love each other despite its presence, because it is present in all of us. Our strength is in our compassion.
"I used to think it was the leaders, that men really made this war because of their hunger for power. But now I really believe it's in all of us--this thing, this monster, waiting to be let out. It waits there looking for a reason, a master, an invitation. If we are not aware of it, it can conquer us."
I mourn for the children who may become terrorists, and through them for all of us, because how can we know what our children will become? We like to think it cannot happen to us, that we are protected, that our children our protected. But in fact we cannot know this, cannot know what our children see and know and hear and feel, not completely. We cannot know. Even at our very best, most loving, most careful, we cannot know. History tells us that we cannot even know what we may be become. Again and again we fall. There is no perfect mother. There is no perfect place. There is no perfect safety.
We fool ourselves when we believe that beauty and kindness and safety will protect us. We fool ourselves. We take our safety and our beauty for granted, and we do not recognize what we have.
".....beauty. Bosnia. Bosnia was beautiful. The song of Bosnia, the world of Bosnia that flows cold clean in the stream and tastes of a full meal. Bosnia, the snowy mountains, the green green hurt heart of Bosnia, the kindness we shared, how we lived in each other's warm kitchens, in sunny cafés, ...... It isn't the cruelty that broke my heart. Cruelty is easy. Cruelty, like stupidity, is quick, immediate .... Cruelty is generic. Cruelty is boring, boring into the center of the part of you that goes away. We are dead--all of us--to the suffering. There is too much of it -- but remind us of the beauty, the beet fields in full bloom, the redness of the fields. Remind us how we once sang, how the voices echoed as one through the landscape of night and stars. Remind us how often we laughed , how safe we felt, how easy it was to be friends. All of us. I miss everything -- Bosnia was paradise"
It is our compassion that saves us, that connects us to each other, that makes us whole. We will not win this war by blowing each other up. We may win the battle, but we will lose the war. We don't win by building higher and stronger walls. We don't win by reducing people to the other, by building better boundaries. We win through connection, by opening our hearts to each other. We win by making those small connections, by listening, by actually seeing the people we meet every day, by seeing and honoring them as people just like us, separated only by a happenstance of fate, as people with all their complexities and contradictions and fears and hurts. Only then, if we connect to others, and they in turn connect to those around them, can we hope to overcome pain and fear and the violence and yes, the evil that pain and fear build. Only by hurting can we overcome hurt.
In Ensler's play, the psychiatrist, J.D. learns to open her heart, and is slowly transformed from the cold, distant, analytical psychiatrist, into a different person, one who finds happiness despite pain. She finds that she is no different, and no better, than anyone else:
"Marching. Marching through people's brains. I don't murder people, well, I do, really. I kill them with all my boundaries and rules and perfect training"
Love one another. Listen to each other. Celebrate. Do not take beauty for granted. Do not let fear drive you, but embrace it and learn to laugh in its face and rise above it. Do not hold onto hurt, but let it go, use it to help someone else heal. Beauty and darkness, good and evil, only annihilate each other if we let them.