The news in Paris is grotesque and unfathomable. My heart goes out to that nation and to those directly affected by the terrorist attacks where at least 8 suicide bombers shot and then 7 blew themselves up in densely populated areas of the city on a buzzing Friday night. And where the story of this, the events, are still unfolding. This is not over. The world we live in…I cannot begin to finish that sentence. It is too big. It is much too big.
The news has not reached the world in the same way, but there was a Da’esh (ISIS) terrorist attack yesterday in Beirut, Lebanon also – 40 people died, over 180 injured; the death toll will rise. I did not know why the symbol of a candle with the word ‘Beirut’ in darkness circulated yesterday; now I do, and I have people I need to check on – former students and colleagues, etc. who live in beautiful Beirut. I love that city. I assumed the candle image was a message about the ongoing political (which can be deadly) strife around the garbage that accumulates in Lebanon.
It is troubling how the world can be unmoved by the equivalent – or near equivalent – behaviours in this part of the world, as in the end what I believe we are facing is a war of terror being executed by a few highly radical groups – EMPOWERED BY WORLD POWERS – BY NATIONS – GOVERNMENTS AND RICH INDIVIDUALS – who rotate in and out of the public spotlight, using every means possible to advance their agenda for power, more power. In fact, it is outrageous. The media will continue this analysis, ineptly, because no one knows the full extent of this power jockeying that goes on. It is the very source of our conflicts in the world. The agenda of those in hiding, those in the darkness, those behind the scenes. As I just heard on the BBC now, “Who is behind this?” It is too big a question for me to answer.
How do we, the world, respond to this? Every response is so personal, so I will speak only for myself.
I vowed when I came back to the Middle East that I would minimize my exposure to the news. The reason is: the last time I moved out of Saudi, in 2007, was after the 2006 war in Lebanon, which I found myself in the midst of. Like tens of thousands, I had to make my way out of Lebanon through Syria…and this followed the many years I’d spent feeling deeply concerned (I still am, of course) about the ongoing bloodshed in Israel/Palestine – and the unbelievable impasse of people. The accumulating effects of those events and more including the terrorist attacks on a compound in Dhahran, the region I now live just outside of, had brought on a stress response that was physical. I was suffering from vertigo – extreme vertigo. Literally, my world was spinning. For months.
As beautiful as they were, and they were, which complexifies matters, I had taught a handful of very conservative Muslim students (not at ALL violent in themselves…they fantasized through the acts of others, at times, I believe), one of whom actually celebrated the ‘birth’ of the first female suicide bomber in Palestine, at the time of the Washington sniper shootings. I admonished her for her views, pointing out in response to her rightful comment that the world is largely immune to the daily loss of life of children in the Middle East, etc. etc. etc…I said, “You cannot expect compassion for the murder of innocents if you, yourself, show no respect for the lives of innocent people…in America…or anywhere.” Including Israel, as hard as that is, when you feel that you would betray the losses of your loved ones to care for the losses of others who may be even remotely close to those culpable of being your oppressor.
I spent 11 years in Saudi from 1996-2007, intrigued, and from the start watching and learning from the news, in and out of the Middle East. There was much going on. The stuff of a book that I am writing. Patience with me, please.
Coming out of Saudi, I returned to Canada for the summer and found myself amidst friends and loved ones, feeling alien in so many ways from the peaceful conditions I had then found myself in. Canada is not a nation that wants to dirty its hands with global wars, as much as it is there to support. The new Prime Minister Trudeau intends to remind the world of that. And I have friends who shelter themselves from international news and media, to some degree, because it is too far beyond their circles of both influence and control. Silencing the noise is, I guess, their way of perpetuating harmony – personally, at home, in self. As I said, our response to…life…it is so personal. I respect that.
When a terrorist bomb went off at a Scottish airport when a suicide bomber tried to breach the space, I felt an alien kind of isolation in my response to this – and went for a one off session with a therapist. An exceptional therapist, she had time and space to see me ONCE. I thought: I don’t know what can be achieved by this, but I am going to see her. Two things came from that experience.
And, by the way, I learned long ago that the ‘real work’ is the work between sessions. You see a therapist, and that dialogue prompts a whole manner of thought and responses to follow. That’s how the healing process works.
I learned some key things that help me today make sense of what is going on in the world and in the world around me. It is important to talk, to find those ‘safe’ to talk to and with – people who can actually take that information and help you go forward with it, not respond with simplicity, judgement, bias. The point was: there are people you can ‘safely’ talk to, and there are people who will tear you down for your views and experiences, because theirs clash. Their values clash. One should not be naive. In a vulnerable place, you need to discern who you talk to. So, in that space, I’d made sense of a few key things…how to disclose what was happening for me – I was suffering post-traumatic stress, and that went on for awhile as I re-oriented myself to life in the West, in a new country, England. Then life filled up with new concerns: how to find work in England as the credit crashes siphoned away my life savings. That’s a story for another day. I’m fine. I’ve had a good ride in England and now I’m rebuilding, and am still rooted in that nation…I’ll make my home there.
But in returning to Saudi, I made a promise to myself to find that balance, and to minimize the damage that my observances of the world I live in could cause me. Yet, this does not mean not feeling with one’s heart the pain of what is happening. Beirut. Paris. Saudi. There have been terrorist attacks here, and I’m sure the world is filled with atrocities I’ve not heard of even. I have pulled back from these a little, but not completely. No, not at all. In fact, NOT AT ALL. In the bigger sense of things, I’m coming full circle to how to make sense of these things.
The therapist I saw in Canada told me, “You need to find a safe place to talk,” and she made a few recommendations of groups that I – in the end – did not follow up on – no need – bad timing – there for the summer only. It would have required time I didn’t have. I relaxed and chilled out with my friends. Acceptance of where you are and what is – is a powerful tool, too.
But the other thing I gained from the discussion is something I’ll never forget. And it’s this: we talk to make sense of our lives, to make meaning of things or to find meanings, to understand – and it is through this – that we heal and find solutions to our pain and to many of our problems.
If only…we all knew this. If only…we could be brave enough to hold the dialogues. If only…we all could express what is in our minds and hearts. If only…then what?
A friend who died of cancer in the US wrote a lyric that I put music to, and together we created a complete scandal in our songwriting community with this piece initially called ‘Love Song to a Terrorist’. I left the group and decided I would not go back. The dialogue was destructive. Polarizing. I was too raw from the war of Lebanon to stay engaged, and people were vicious. I left.
If we cannot find the words of agreement, it is a remarkable thing to me that we cannot just back away from one another in disagreement and go create something somewhere else. Something that meets our own needs.
That’s a dangerous consideration, though, when we’re talking about real territory, in real life. The fight for power is bigger than I understand. But I live in this world and as a dear old friend once said – my first photographer – from my first album – W. Shane Smith – “There’s a lot of pain in this world, and if it doesn’t drive you to your knees, then you don’t live in it.”
We are in crisis as a planet.
Even I see that.
Will we observe, or conserve our energy? Will we talk about it, or will we – as a Buddhist friend I taught with in Saudi in 2005 said – “show humility”? Catherine Jennings so wisely awakened me to the fact that there are some truly juvenile nations…in their development, and I think we ALL run the risk of reverting to this way of being, every time a new government is elected – incidentally – by the people. I had an educational philosophy professor in university who has many fans who hold the greatest respect for his provocative views…sometimes, perhaps, the people do not know best. Just maybe sometimes. We get it wrong. We are far, far, far from perfect. And governments given power by the people get it wrong, and cause more damage.
We live in a world with forces beyond my control and yours. But I’ve reached a place in myself where I can both observe and conserve my energy. The terror attacks in Paris today shock me, bring up outrage in myself, and cause me also to go quiet and get reflective as I am about to take a group of students and colleagues to a part of Saudi Arabia that they do not know. I am leading this trip, in that sense. Together, we’re going to explore, in good faith, another part of the world – despite the inclination after an attack like this – attacks like these in Paris and Beirut and elsewhere – to stay small and hide.
I cannot hide from life. It is happening in me and around me. I cannot escape the realities of what I control and cannot. I can only think and consider. Then go out and switch that off, and live. Moment by moment. Real. We all will reach an end one day. I hope mine is not soon. I have friends battling cancer, and fighting the good and valiant fight. I am in their corner. I will do my best to be closer to them. I will not ignore what is going on around me, but my response shall be this:
1. To make more of my own life.
2. To seek and find, and create, beauty.
3. To love.
Here is my wish for Paris today:
PEACE. STRENGTH. SOLIDARITY.