This past week has seen horrible events take place on camera for the whole world to see, as murderers fired into crowds and exploded bombs strapped to their chests in order to kill as many innocent bystanders as possible. Paris yet again descended into hell as determined criminals struck its festive streets, less than a year after the Charlie Hebdo horrors.
People from all corners of the globe, as had happened ten months ago, began expressing a level of compassion and outrage rarely seen, and debates on why this display is hypocritical and whether it is indeed racist raged on on the sidelines of the mourning processions.
Quite frankly, I find the idea of “feeling one’s feelings” extremely difficult. Indeed psychiatrists would probably also tell you that most people find it very difficult to sit across the table with their own emotions. Many among us project these feelings of pain, of sadness, and turn them into rage, anger, hate. Others repress these feelings, only to have them reappear, channelled. Some of us will become more aggressive, others more paranoid, cautious in our dealings with strangers… I don’t know, people are so different, and yet we’re mostly united in the fact that we find some of our emotions very difficult to cope with.
But many of us have had a generally healthy reaction, by dealing with our grief in any way we can, whether this means displaying the French flag on our Facebook profile photos, writing long posts describing our horror, our heartbreak in front of so much violence, or some even by writing songs to express these emotions.
It is a healthy way to deal with a concrete reality that you, as an individual physically far away from Paris (most likely, as people in the world are), and yet emotionally so close to it, are up against. Does it matter if you’re French? Does it matter if you know someone directly affected by the events? The fact that it happened over there partly means it could happen wherever you live (you being a prototypical Western person). You’ve probably visited Paris, and have French friends. But there’s more to it.
France is, for many in the world, the ultimate Universal. It’s nobody’s fault that it is so, it happened over the course of a couple of centuries, with literature, politics, and other fields choosing to represent France as a pinacle of cultural achievement, of refinement, and what have you. But let’s be absolutely clear: this is a complete construct. France, the amazing country that it is, is just another country on this earth, and its 66 million residents are only a water drop in the sea of people that populate this planet. They are just as important as the rest of us, and while many of us find what happened absolutely shocking, there are ramifications to the way we choose to express our outrage.
Many have written about why the specific wording some have chosen is racist, or even hypocritical. The main question I asked myself when many friends and colleagues called asking me if everyone I know in Paris is ok was: “Where were you guys 24 hours ago, when equally insane freaks attacked Beirut’s Shia neighborhoods with a savagery difficult to put into words?” It’s not their fault that they didn’t know, you might say. It’s true. As unimpressed as I was by people’s humanity that seemed to be born all of a sudden that Friday night, absent as it was for all the previous events that shook the world these past few months, I refuse to judge people for not feeling strongly about what happened in Beirut. It’s a complicated issue, and throwing it in everyone’s face at a time like this is crass, and counterproductive.
But here’s my point, and I really wish for people to consider it carefully. It’s difficult to feel empathy for people who live in a place you’ve never been, who are portrayed very poorly in the news, in movies… I have many acquaintances who have confessed to me, with impressive candor, that they simply can’t feel any sort of direct bond or empathy for people living in places like Baghdad, Beirut, or Damascus. It takes a lot of courage to admit it, but I think most people, if they take a few seconds to think about it, will realize that it is almost impossible to feel close to people you can’t picture, people you feel you share no common heritage with, no matter how false these claims are.
And here’s what I have to offer: the great opportunity of the week. It sounds harsh to say, that a positive opportunity can arise in the wake of such horror, but what if everyone took a second, and considered the great turmoil the attack on Paris has produced in you. Consider the horror, the sadness, the rage of people who have lost loved ones, and multiply this feeling by a thousand. That’s how people who live in Syria, in Beirut, in Baghdad, have felt over the past many years. It’s difficult to put yourself in these shoes, until someone straps them on you by force. Here you are, hurt and haggard. It’s the closest you’ve been to people living in the Middle East in a while. Let’s call it what it is: a great opportunity… for bonding.
So when the news tonight says that France, Russia, or the United States are bombing Raqqa heavily, at the end of the bulletin, take a minute, and imagine the horror of fighter jets bombing entire residential buildings to the ground, of living with these monsters who attacked Paris, with no way out, and no Facebook posts or flags in your honor. Just a brief mention at the end of the news, in the corner of the newspaper’s webpage. Many people will probably even be glad it happened to you. Can’t you just picture some people raising a glass, in a bar, while watching images of a plane taking off, adding something crass, like “let them burn in hell”?
You know how it feels, right now. We all do. Why doesn’t it affect us more than that? Is it just another sad truth about feelings? That they can easily overwhelm us, and when they do, we go numb? We shut down. And we go into denial.
If you want to spill ink and waste energy writing about things these next few days, why not try convincing others to examine those feelings? For everyone‘s sake.