I’m taking special note now of how, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, there is a sudden revolt against this common expression of sympathy — an urgent feeling that our “thoughts and prayers” are simply not enough to change what keeps getting purported in this country by misguided and sick individuals. The current election season, as well, has tapped into a strong undercurrent on both sides that is unhappy with the status quo and rejects the typical political rhetoric… real action is clearly needed if we want to disrupt the pattern and maybe reverse some threatening trends.
It’s motivating me to get more directly involved in “being the change” (as some bumper sticker says… ah, googling that I’m seeing it’s derived from a Gandhi quote) I want to see in the world. After the unrest in Baltimore last summer I made sure to participate in a community event that former Peace Corps volunteers organized in a West Baltimore neighborhood, trying to turn a small vacant lot into a garden and community meeting place. We also organized a conference call to talk — as program alumni scattered all over the country now (although many still living and working in Baltimore) — about how things went wrong last summer in Baltimore and how we might try to effect some change there or in our own communities. I know it’s a privilege just to be able to set aside time from our work and our families and talk from a distance (or write about now) the problems in our society… a privilege many do not have. But this is one of the initial steps we need to take toward solving our problems — to listen to those with firsthand experience and to fully understand the problem and then discuss possible ways forward. That one phone call last summer connected us with our fellow alumni who were teaching some of the students who clashed with police in the city and then talked with those students afterwards about their actions and what they were feeling. What we were seeing on the news became far more real and the emotions and pain and motivation to help could not have been more real.
But this listening/learning/discussing is a step so few of us seem to have time for anymore, due to the need to work more due to declining real wages, longer commutes, two-working-parent households, not to mention the lures of self-centric social media and on-demand entertainment on our omni-present screens. (I’m envisioning a new horror film franchise for the old and cranky: Screen. “Screen 2 and Screen 3 were actually better than the original! Much scarier!”) Our news and engagement with the world is dwindling to tweets and Facebook posts… reading something in print seems like a rare luxury all of the sudden. On the other hand social media is communicating events and opportunities to help or come together in response more widely than ever before, so it is becoming easier to find ways to get involved. Someone in my town has been inspired by a recent vigil for Orlando to create an international festival later this year to celebrate the diversity of our community, and I’m connecting to that via FB and hoping to contribute to that event. So for all the bad behaviors technology enables (“Can’t talk… face in screen…”), it has the potential to broaden our community and connect us in real ways with others too.
I just started reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which is a story about the Katrina aftermath as experienced by a Syrian immigrant and his family who lived in New Orleans at the time. I have to say: Eggers’ description of Islam makes it sound pretty appealing if I could get past the believing in God thing. It stresses personal responsibility, it acknowledges all of the other religions… the basic tenets sound pretty enlightened. I’m sure most other religions have some great principles as well… but it’s the common sentiment in the face of tragedy of “looking to God” or “putting it all in God’s hands” that I think is proving to be pretty dangerous. Because in lieu of a caring higher power watching over and taking care of us, who do we have calling the shots instead? The wealthy and the violent? Too much of human history seems to prove that to be the case. We also have the ambitious and the bold leading us, and yes, sometimes if they are not shouted down or pushed out of the way, the thoughtful, the eloquent and the altruistic. But I’m worried that in the face of acts of terror and the small matter of climate change, a fearful electorate will barely have the patience (if they even have the time) to listen to the more thoughtful leaders among us. Perhaps we’ll be saved in this election by the fact that people can still quickly tell when someone is pandering and trying to capitalize on fear.
I remember reading Tolstoy in college and, like a 22-year-old know-it-all, being rather unimpressed with his fear and vanity when, as he turned to his own notion of God late in his life, he wrote: “I just could not have appeared on this earth for no reason, cause, or meaning… I could not be the fledgling fallen from its nest that I indeed felt I was.” And the 42-year-old version of me still wants to reply, “Um, yes, Leo… you could be that fledgling.” Maybe I’ll change my tune when I’m 82 and have only signed my name to a War and Peace worth’s of emails… but I still think we need little more than the Golden Rule and the mantra: “your life is what you make of it” to dispel the fear and uncertainty we might have about how to coexist and live our lives. Treat others with respect, because you’d like to be respected. And then take this gift of life we’ve been given — abandoned fledglings or not — and try to do what makes yourself and others happy.
I can’t help but think if many of the perpetrators of recent shootings or acts of terror were treated with respect as children and throughout their lives, that the tragedies would not have occurred. I think this “be kind and understanding” approach gets attacked as a sign of weakness by the hawks among us, but when the root of many of these problems goes back to criminals’ childhoods, then I don’t know who could be against trying to prevent this going forward by simply encouraging your kids to be nice to others.
Anyway, it’s late and now I feel like I’ve said little more than “play nice” here. But being nice to others would be one step further than thinking or praying about the recent tragedies. And it might prevent many future tragedies. Then we’ll just have the rising oceans to worry about… I need some investment capital for my ark business. And plenty of dramamine. Until next time…