Sunday, November 15, 2015

On Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, the End We Work for and the New Beginning We Dream of

I woke up this morning to a flood of text messages asking me if I had read about the bombings in Paris. Barely awake at the outset, I was instantly driven to full alertness by the pain in my chest caused by the CNN article I was reading. It spoke of over a hundred casualties in France–lives taken by men masquerading around as servants of God. I messaged nearly everyone I knew in that country, or otherwise checked their safety status on Facebook and pried on their profile for any signs of activity to check if they were alive and physically unharmed. Why do I specify the harm I was worried about as “physical”?  Well, I suppose anyone living in and around Paris would suffer from some sort of harm after something like that happens. In fact, this harm even extends across the globe. This harm affects us all. Only sociopaths and those with emotional illnesses will refuse to feel at least some amount of pain or commiseration from hearing news like that. Even as a Vipassana practitioner who has trained himself to live with the concept of Earthly impermanence, my chest was filled with sorrow and it still is. It is hurting very badly right now as I am writing this.

Each response contributed small chunks of relief to my pain until I gave off a big sigh earlier tonight when I learned that all my friends and acquaintances living in France are well. But even that did not make the pain go away. A sigh for your friends is a sigh for your friends, but I still feel for those who may never get to sigh the same way I did. I think of those who may have had to sit in tears, staring at an unoccupied chair during their Saturday breakfast because their partners/children/parents/friends never returned home after the concert or their night out. I think of people who have had to cry themselves to sleep while staring at the ghostly shadow cast by the curtains on the side of the bed that belonged to their partners who have instead been laid to rest elsewhere, never to wake the next morning to greet them with a kiss and a smile.

On top of all this, there were other bomb blasts elsewhere in the world—in Beirut where over 40 people died, and another one in Baghdad where over 20 died. This made my level of pain shoot up to an almost unbearable level. Why did it never show up as a priority post on my Facebook and Twitter feed? Is the world so utterly defeated and hopeless about the Middle East that bombings there turn very few heads and gain little media attention? Has the world suddenly calmed down and accepted mass murders in places like Iraq and Lebanon as normal phenomena not worthy of sympathy (or prayers)? I refuse to accept this. And this isn’t just because I’m a peace worker and I have spent time in the Middle East but because, goodness, West Asians are no less human than Europeans. This brings back to memory the sheer indifference of social media about the massacre that happened at a school in Kenya in April where 147 people were gunned to death by Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based extremist group. Did Facebook activate its Mark as Safe feature? Did the Twittersphere and Instagramsphere fill up with hashtag rallies? Ponder on this really hard.

While I'm on the topic of gravity, I'd like to touch the issue of numbers because this seems to be a common defence for people when asked about why nobody talked about the last two days' events. They say things like: "Oh, but they didn't reach a hundred deaths, Ludwig." "But, Ludwig, there were less than 50 deaths in each of those blasts." And the absolute worst: "Ludwig, in Paris, there were over a hundred dead and they weren't just French; an American girl was killed, too! You know how Paris is such a tourist magnet." Really? Should I go ahead and remind you of the Kenyan tragedy? What's the difference between bombs killing 20 or 40, and rifles taking over a hundred lives? One life lost to a gunshot or blast or stabbing is already too much. We even wail at deaths caused by natural disasters. In any case, mothers will still be weeping over their deceased children’s clothing. A husband somewhere will still be hugging his dead wife’s favourite scarf. Unframed photographs will still have blots from the tears shed on them. Why? Because lives were lost unnaturally—violently. That’s the bare truth. And we don’t say American Lives or European lives or Arab Lives or African Lives or Christian lives or Muslim lives or Jewish lives or Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Pagan lives were lost. Human lives. Lives of people who had mothers and fathers—of those who may have had brothers or sisters, or sons or daughters. Lives just like yours. Just like mine.

I condemn these murders just as you, dear reader, would. I cry foul over people who have the audacity to use the name of God to commit senseless acts of violence and crimes against humanity, but I’m not going big on expressions of censure. There are several opinions going around the internet about theories of accountability and I will not jump into that pond. Let not my lack of indignation, however, lead you to believe that I don’t feel strongly about condemning violence and murder. If anything is as strong as the pain I feel, it is deep and seething anger. But I will not allow it to consume the bulk of this piece of writing. That has already been done by countless writers all over the world and I feel no need to publish my own version of the same thing. I am writing this to express something quite the opposite: hope.

Tonight when I sleep, I will probably have a nightmare with flashing images of a café in Paris where people get shot and bleed from their heads and torsos. But it will only be a nightmare. It’s bad but not as horrible as the reality that some people are forced to live in. I’m sure a few, if not all, of them would gladly trade their reality for my nightmares if only to put a stop to their very real suffering. At least it only takes an hour of meditation to rid my mind of the horrors of a bad dream. Real life is much crueller for a lot of people and it takes way more to ease their pain. It takes going through the end and beginning anew. This “end” may be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It can mean ending your relationship with what was once your home by moving away and starting fresh elsewhere, as refugees are aiming to do. And, sadly, it can even mean the end of this life by voluntarily embracing death and beginning the afterlife—if you believe in that sort of thing.

But what “end” do I really mean? I speak of the ultimate end of global violence. Not just bombings and murder. Not even just the end of beatings and bullying and things like that. This “end” extends to the destruction of every form of violence, physical or otherwise—the end of war, of subjugation, of hate, of the concept of “us and them,” of social injustice and of all forms of inequality. Only when this happens will a new beginning emerge. Only when this happens will we truly have peace. And not “peace” that constitutes ceasefires, treaties, or laws providing appeasement. I’m talking about real, lasting global harmony where justice is the norm—where poverty and excess are things of the past, where guns are nothing but museum artifacts and knives stay in kitchens and gardens. I’m talking about a brand new day when people wouldn't need to pray to ask for peace but instead pray to be thankful for it—where love, kindness and compassion are the answers to “What religion do you subscribe to?” I know this will probably not happen in my lifetime. Probably not in my children’s or even my grandchildren’s lifetimes. However, I believe it will happen. As long as there is a single person in this world who genuinely believes in peace and walks the path of universal love, there is hope.