I am not a world leader. I am not a soldier. I am not terrorist. I am an expert in nothing except my own personal life experience, varied and unusual as that may be.
I am uneducated; a high school drop-out living in a little suburb whose name would mean nothing to you. I am halfway round the world from where this hot-blooded, fear-driven, disgusting violence is occurring. I am an American, and I know that fact alone shows that I am not necessarily from a culture that thinks before acting. Yet I beg that you listen to me anyway.
Fear makes all people irrational. It has proven to be a powerful tool throughout history, particularly when created by those with malicious intent. No one is immune to its effects: fear is a natural and necessary survival skill, without which the human race would have gone extinct thousands of years ago.
I am not a politician, or even particularly well-studied in any particular field. But if there is one thing I know and understand from a lifetime of experience, it is fear. I understand fear on a level that I can comfortably say that most people will be fortunate enough to never experience. Fear, so powerful and so potent that I first begged God for the mercy of death when I was 8 years old, lying in my room in the dark, afraid of the potential that each new morning brings. Fear; a nuanced yet necessary emotion that can turn in on itself, until what used to be a survival mechanism becomes a force of self destruction, until a fear of dying morphs into a fear of living through what lies ahead.
The questions Fear asks stab at the heart of philosophy, religion, science, and history, and yet these questions remain unanswered. So, we create our own answers, our own beliefs, that shield us from reality like a security blanket shields a child in the dark. It makes us feel better, having something to shroud ourselves in, even if it is fundamentally nothing more than a piece of fabric that offers no real protection and only serves to limit our vision. And the less we see and understand, the more we fear.
I did not tell my kiddo about the attacks in Beirut and Paris, initially. I didn’t hear the news right away, and I was still informing myself to the best of my ability with temporarily limited internet access. I have always tried to tell my son the (age-appropriate) truth to any questions he asks me, and I don’t wish my ignorance to cause me to pass along inaccurate information, which he would accept as truth because it came from me. I was basically gathering the core points of what I wanted to discuss with him, fact checking my details, as well as finding a good world map that would help me put into perspective for him where these events were taking place. As I said, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t just tell him what happened, but that I told him the truth of the situation as best as I could, in a way that would leave him somehow both comforted and informed.
Apparently (and unsurprisingly), other parents were not making similar attempts with their children, and my son came home from school on Monday (he is in elementary school), saying that his friends told him that World War III was starting, and that our state (as in, the state in the USA where I reside and obviously will not name on this blog), had bombed Paris.
So, I was headed off at the pass unfortunately, left to not only inform but first correct misinformation. I am still thankful for the preparation I had done the day before, because it made a complex and potentially confusing discussion much simpler.
We started by looking at a world map and discussing/identifying the countries involved, with a side note to clarify that, as a state within a country, we personally don’t go to war, and how that is a national decision, and nothing to do with our state in particular. We talked about how many people had died and been injured. We talked about terrorism, about how it’s ultimate goal is always fear. I told him about 9/11, and what it was like to watch our country trade away essential liberty for temporary safety. I told him about how, in our fear, we made the mistake of writing our government a blank check to do as it pleased, and how, because we were too scared to take a moment and actually think, we made horrible policy choices that made a bad situation in the Middle East even worse, and gave our government additional power over it’s citizens that we will realistically never get back. I told him that we had made the mistake of letting our fear dictate our choices and warp our perspectives.
He asked me if World War 3 was starting.
I have always fought to be honest with my son. It is a point of pride for me that I am honest with my child when so many are not. And then he asks a question like that, and I wish I had given myself a bit more wiggle room when deciding my “honesty policy”.
I tried to explain to him, as best as I could without creating more fear, that between technological advances and the experiences of World War I and World War II, that we as a planet, as the human race, knew that we could not afford to have a World War III. That a true, third world war was off the table because we are smart enough as a species to know that no one would win. Every single person would lose.
As I said it, I realized more and more that I was telling him my hope, not my opinion. I truly hope, despite all the hate and discord on this planet, that every person and government realizes we cannot risk the consequences that a World War would bring, in this age of technology and militarization. If we continue to fight violence with violence, my true opinion is that we will (at best) blow ourselves back into the stone age and (at worst) destroy our entire world and all of humanity.
I decided, even as the truth gnawed at me, to let him live in my hope, not my opinion. He is young and innocent, despite his incredible wisdom, and I do not believe the world will be saved by a generation of cynics who are desensitized to horror before they even get close to adulthood. Optimism, faith in humanity, and seeing the potential friend in our enemies is perhaps the one thing that can stop this chain reaction where we use violence to fight violence, never letting go of our fear long enough to find a way to share this world peacefully and generously. I hear the adults in my own country decrying the decision to allow refugees from Syria to find a home here. I hear the adults in my own country talking about the Muslim world as if the religion itself was inherently evil, never considering the fact that there is evil in all of us, regardless of our faith or affiliations. I see the splintering, conservative vs. liberal, Christian vs. Muslim, young vs. old, progress vs. tradition, fear vs. compassion. And most frighteningly of all, I see more and more of the world buying into the most dangerous of all mentalities: Us vs. them.
Whether you believe that we came from the hand of a Creator God or the natural processes of evolution, whether you believe you have a corner on absolute truth or admit that you have no idea, you know in your heart that humanity is all of us. All of us. The very best and the very worst of our potential has been displayed throughout history, and now you and I are the ones writing it; we are the ones whose choices will echo down through time.
Are you a Christian, a Muslim, an Athiest? Are you an American, a Frenchman, a Sunni, a Shiite, a refugee without a home? Are you a president, a postman, a sewage plant worker, a child in a sweatshop? Are you black, white, brown, red, green? Are you straight, gay, bisexual, asexual? Are you a mother, a father, a daughter, a son? Are you a man, a woman? Are you a prince, a pauper?
No, you’re not. YOU are a human being. You might be a human being with a faith, a country, an allegiance, a career, an ethnicity, a gender, a sexual orientation, and a family member to one or to many, but beneath all that, you are a human being. And you are capable of more; of being better, more humane, more compassionate, more kind, more optimistic. We all are. I am made of flesh and blood, just like you. When I am in pain, it hurts me just as pain hurts you. When my hopes and dreams are dashed, I have trouble letting go of them, just as it is hard for you. We all can bleed, yet, we all can love. We all can lash out in anger and retaliation, yet, we all can forgive. There is the capacity for all these things within all of us.
So, humanity, this is where we decide. This is where we decide who we are, what we are made of, and what values are so precious that we cannot let go of them at any cost. Security is an illusion at best, so what are we really trying to achieve? Or rather, what SHOULD we be trying to achieve?
I will leave you with a quote (or two), a poem, and a speech, from those with more wisdom than I. And personally, I leave you with a gentle reminder to be kind to your fellow man. Fear can so easily destroy compassion, and without compassion, we don’t stand a chance.
“There are perhaps many causes worth dying for, but to me, certainly, there are none worth killing for.” – Albert Dietrich
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee. – John Donne
And finally, a passage from my favorite book that I feel is more needed than perhaps ever before:
“Not one day in anyone’s life is an uneventful day, no day without profound meaning, no matter how dull and boring it might seem, no matter whether you are a seamstress or a queen, a shoeshine boy, or a movie star, a renowned philosopher or a Down’s-syndrome child. Because in every day of your life, there are opportunities to perform little kindnesses for others, both by conscious acts of will and unconscious example. Each smallest act of kindness—even just words of hope when they are needed, the remembrance of a birthday, a compliment that engenders a smile—reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage years later and far away. Likewise, each small meanness, each thoughtless expression of hatred, each envious and bitter act, regardless of how petty, can inspire others, and is therefore the seed that ultimately produces evil fruit, poisoning people whom you have never met and never will. All human lives are so profoundly and intricately entwined—those dead, those living, those generations yet to come—that the fate of all is the fate of each, and the hope of humanity rests in every heart and in every pair of hands. Therefore, after every failure, we are obliged to strive again for success, and when faced with the end of one thing, we must build something new and better in the ashes, just as from pain and grief, we must weave hope, for each of us is a thread critical to the strength—to the very survival of the human tapestry. Every hour in every life contains such often-unrecognized potential to affect the world that the great days and thrilling possibilities are combined always in this momentous day.” – Dean Koontz, From The Corner of His Eye
Thank you for reading.