Nice & Beyond
Nice was in party mood enjoying the end of Bastille Day in a blaze of fireworks. Like the 4th of July – festivals hardly come in more secular garb than Bastille Day with its echoes of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Before it ended 84 lives were ended.
Not so long ago there was another tranquil beach in Tunisia where death came in waves of gunfire. In an Orlando nightclub a hail of bullets turned dancing the night away into a bloody dance of death. In England an MP was brutally assassinated by a right wing racist. In Dallas and Baton Rouge ex-military black men shot policemen dead for simply being policemen. In Baton Rouge itself and in Michigan and in Los Angeles and in other US cities – black men have been shot by police for no good reason, giving at least the impression that they died just because they were black men.
We blame race; we blame religion; we blame politics; we blame government; we blame refugees; we blame ignorance; we blame poverty; we blame each other. We always fail to blame ourselves because we do not think we act or would ever behave like this but of course in our own small ways we do behave like this and when we excuse our trivial faults we excuse our collective ownership of all this inhumanity.
All the witnesses to all these events will swear it’s their lives that are forever changed. Yet they’re left painfully aware their witness will not even prevent another random act of hate.
It is tempting to despair entirely. What is there to say? What is there to do?
Families are left dispossessed of some son or daughter; some father or mother or brother or sister; some loved friend or beloved spouse or some cherished child. We claim solidarity with the victims yet even when our best eloquence rises to the occasion its words are unmatched by actions.
We choose by inaction to leave the guns in the hands of the misfits; we choose by inaction to let the politics of race go unchallenged; we elect to be blind to inter-generational poverty by electing those to office who refuse to see the ghettos of inequity. Richly endowed with resources we justify our meanness to those made helpless by war. Fearing for our own safety, most often we pass quickly by on the other side rather than being the Good Samaritans we are duty bound to be.
Is it a surprise when we are willing to do so little that we are unable to say anything that brings comfort – unable to hear anything above the din of sirens – unable to feel anything beyond our stomachs clenching – as we wait transfixed before our televisions waiting for another body count?
Body count: the phrase is painfully dehumanising. More painfully, however, first we must ask ourselves if these deaths were in Africa, or the Philippines or Chile or Istanbul how many more bodies would we need to make them count as much as those lost in Nice or Paris or Madrid; in Orlando or New York or London?
We may not formally own slavery as a culture but through the Media we still license the idea that some lives are indisputably worth more than others. The world is not as our Media seems to see it – since every life is made equally invaluable – but it is certainly how the rest of world perceives our narcissistic preoccupation with our own losses – measured as they are sometimes in the tens and hundreds and sometimes even in the thousands – whilst theirs have been measured frequently in the hundreds and in the theatres of conflict most often in the thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands.
The value judgement that purports to make our losses more important is hardly worthy of our purported values. This moral devaluation also informs the values and corrupts the judgements of others, including the perpetrators of these murders
Violence begets violence: it is as true of random acts of terror as it is of domestic abuse or any of the other many forms of aggression including war. This latest evil in Nice has toppled on us as only the last in a series of horrors. It turns out not even to be the last word as there have been further shootings in Baton Rouge and a random axe attack in Germany.
The century we have lived in, though near in experience is already far from our reality. It was full of war and replete with violent death. It was besmirched with genocides and rank with seething hatreds based on race, religion and political philosophy. In 1945, upon the plain of utter destruction which had blotted out almost entire civilisations in Europe; in Asia; and around the wider world, we solemnly promised ourselves and each other we would do better for the future and that we would not repeat those terrible failures festering of hate and spawned of fear and nourished by indifferent greed. Perhaps in the permafrost of Cold War although fearfully on the edge of extinction we came to think these other ancient hatreds were truly dead.
Since those dark days we have reassured ourselves with memorials. The more indifferent it seems we are to the dangers of our passive indifference the more memorials we commission and the more we observe our solemn services of remembrance.
It is as if we believe they’re talismans to hold at bay an evil we believe to be outside of us…to keep it at some safe distance from our comfortable lives…to keep it in the Middle East; or in the heartlands of distant Africa; or entangled in the dense forests of Cambodia; or trapped it in the hostile mountains passes of what once briefly was Yugoslavia.
We have created institutions to police our fears and to keep us safe. But there’s no one who polices our hearts or guards us from ourselves and our selfish inwardness.
The enemy we must truly fear is not without. He has he not crept un-noted into our careful citadels walled and secure. Within our nations, where the refugee is unwelcome and the immigrant despised; where the poor are invisible and where petty personal hatreds quickly erect cathedrals of hate, here we find the enemy we must fear. It not somewhere else like a jostling plague that has overrun the next town; or a virus spreading next into our neighbourhoods; or, someone who simply lives next door to us with whom we cannot get along. Rather it is come closer than we dare to admit. It is in us; it is us. And to defeat this enemy within the hardest truth is we must first change ourselves.
In a few short weeks my own small world has become to me a smaller, meaner place. The ideals for which I’ve argued for most of my adult life have it seems been set aside, one by one. The ideal of the EU is merely the most recent to fall. Most of the causes I have pursued are lost. And economic statistics now aid this sense that something is fundamentally amiss. Despite never being a wealthier nation for the first time certainly in living memory a generation of young people are poorer than the generation immediately before them.
It is as if the meter of progress has been set back to nought just as my life’s metered time runs down. I well know I’m now fast approaching the time when I will be called from this field of endeavour: mourned briefly and quickly forgotten.
My life, however, is not a dead struggle though death had mediated its every turn and twist. It is not a fruitless labour though every harvest falls far short of plenty. My part is part of the unending struggle between life and death. It mediates life’s personal battle between good and evil. It is the war to which we are born to serve our time. It is the war we know from our earliest childish imaginings but it is more terrible than anything we ever might have imagined as children.
It is true it is always waged unequally with time and death. It’s also equally repaid to each of us with a portion of sadness and personal desolation. But the rations of grief do not make each life less a banquet of hope. Rather they bestow upon life its festal character. They make the good times precious to us.
The young are full of resilience and zealous for the fight to make change happen; to make of this world of ours a better place. Then defeats seem but setbacks; setbacks but victories postponed.
But time’s cruel march reverses every ordered scale. In a blink a lifetime is no more than a bridge of sighs from where we watch an adamantine world unchanging and unmoved. From this well-appointed place, a lifetime seems too brief a span to change anything when, once, from youth’s lost promontory, a life’s time seemed a small eternity.
Who cannot but feel there’s no fight left much less a cause worth fighting for – let alone any reasonable hope of seeing the seeming impossible dream of leaving this world a better for our children and for their children’s children. Will it come to pass before I pass away – perhaps not – but the dream will surely survive my life’s disappointments
From this last outpost I watch the processions of the dead burying their lost causes in an oblivion of grief, unable, or perhaps more truthfully, unwilling to change a single thing for the better. From this cold perch the scale of ignoble loss dwarfs every noble cause.
The losses of life’s many battles piling up one upon the other induce word-weary despair. But if I’m a supposed wordsmith then from despair’s anvil I must fashion words to serve the cause.
For it is here in this lonely place where we must always endure. It is here we must hold true to all we believe in and to all the intangible ideas that light our imaginations and enliven the better dreams we share with one another: dreams of a better world for all; of better times for all; and dreams of a better end than we alone deserve.
It is when there seems to be no point in fighting-on that we are called to persist with the struggle. It is in the pointless endeavour to keep life’s flickering light alive for just another second that lies the true point towards which we are oriented. When we feel there’s no point any longer then we rediscover we are truly not alone.
There it is we meet the unashamed power of life itself in all its glorious majesty.
I can give a name to that glorious majesty – it is hope. I can give form to that hope – it is called Love. For many those things will suffice of themselves.
I might leave the rest unsaid and let silence speak for all and hope by saying nothing to cause none offence. I cannot be so mean. I must not be so cowardly.
For me, Hope and Love are but the doorkeepers to another reality which urges admittance to this world of ours and whom we are inclined to keep at arms-length because we are so wearied by our own failures; because we so ashamed of aspects of our true selves; but mostly because we fear to let go of our own sense of our self-importance. If we dare our conscious-self, it may easily pierce the reality behind that glass which clearly separates life from death. Through that glass we may darkly peer and discover for ourselves the shadow of something much greater than ourselves.
Here in this dark place if we but briefly set aside ourselves and let our ego go, here we may meet such enlightenment. Here we may be transformed. Here the better dreams of our imperfect natures can become something greater than ourselves. Here is where we find ourselves in another greater reality.
It is a personal discovery. It is quickly a tangible reality to us. It is truly alive and truly lives inside us. It is immeasurably good. It is companionable, and gentle and full of warmth and alive with laughter. It is loving. It cares. If we let it, it will change us forever. It wants to know us for ourselves.
This is God.