jusqu’à ce qu’il n’y a plus. I’ll pick up from where I left off in my previous post. Given all of the things that can go wrong, given all of the told and untold dangers we could face every minute of every day, it’s truly a wonder that we are all not paralyzed by fear, that we get anywhere at all. Does one anticipate, in one’s right mind, that a black-hooded gunman will blow their brains out with a Kalashnikov rifle while one is eating dinner on the terrace of a restaurant? Probably no more so than someone anticipating that they would expire of a heart attack dining on that terrace. Both outcomes are rationally possible.
For months after 9/11, while driving to work, I’d scan the Boston skyline for smoke upon arriving at the Weston Tolls on the Mass Pike. If I saw any smoke on the horizon, I vowed to get off the highway in Newton and reverse direction home. Smoke never appeared. But that doesn’t mean one day it won’t. [The day of the Marathon bombing, I was working from home.] To live our lives sanely we need to surmount the fear of all of the things that can go wrong, and adjust our actions to be more aware of the possibilities of what could go wrong. I’ll still drive into Boston to go to work, but I’ll try not to get so lost in thought (or anything else) that I don’t give the slightest attention to what’s going on around me. Being a good driver means being aware that you have no idea what the other drivers may do. (I’m trying to get that message across to my teenage son who I’m teaching to drive.) While immersion into one’s self can be restorative, there is a time and place for it. When out in the world, one needs to be aware of what’s going on with the knowledge that attention and focus are not infinite. That we cannot control what’s around us and to be ready to react (actions and consequences) has its limits. That same impulse to take care keeps me from picking up a cigarette and smoking it, or stirs me to exercise for a half-hour a day and to watch what I eat.
Humanity always carries with it the worst humanity can do. Nowadays, horror is inflicted daily in the name of God. The Apocalypse is coming, and for some of those who believe it’s coming they need to assure themselves of their place in the post-Apocalypse by making themselves pure. And to do so means to rid the world of what, and who, they consider impure.They want a holy war wherein all impurity is vanquished, and victory is theirs. Lash out at the impure infidel and the infidel will lash out back at them, showing the pure how impure the infidel is, making it easier to sway some hearts to their cause and help stamp out that impurity.
On a personal level I utterly detest the dichotomy between Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew. Being of Sicilian ancestry I am well aware of the several centuries that the Moors ruled the island. How Arabic words, and place names, crept into the Sicilian language. How our cuisine and architecture has Arabic influences. How some of us Sicilians have a distinctly Semitic appearance. (I remember as a kid in the 1950s and 1960s too many instances where a waitress would ask probing questions to see if we were Jewish because of how my father looked, as if the shape of his nose had anything to do with anything.) I take pride in the fact that during the Dark Ages, it was Islam that protected the knowledge, both scientific and in the humanities, of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They protected and copied the ancient manuscripts and even furthered research in mathematics, among other sciences. At the same time, the Catholic Church was busy writing over these ancient manuscripts, or burning them, and persecuting those still seeking to advance science. (Eppur si muove.) And all those Crusades to “protect” the seat of their faith. But worse was that hope for eternal life. As I learned more about history and about politics, the more I learned that the Church used the promise of heaven to keep the masses down (first serfs, but later peasants and workers, and women — anyone who was downtrodden and suffered) by applying the dictum to them that it was their lot to suffer, as announced by God, and they would earn a seat in heaven by how well they endured their suffering. There was never a thought to alleviating suffering in the here and now.
So I have significant allegiance to Arab culture from my ethnic heritage and from my love of knowledge and literature. But in the suburb where I grew up, I was too ethnic (that kid who talked with his hands and was way too excitable). I couldn’t relate much to the Anglo WASPs of the town I grew up in whose history dated back to the earliest days of the colonies. An outsider except with other outsider kids who were also ethnic — but Jewish. We bonded by our shared marginalization, and by how much of a role guilt (both personal and cultural) played in our lives. So now my heart is torn: I don’t want to split my allegiance: I am for both.
But the killer (pardon the pun) for me is how much the fear of God weighs into the equation. What better way to keep a good Catholic boy on the straight and narrow than the fear of going to hell forever? (James Joyce milked this for all that it’s worth.) What better way to keep the masses in line and accept their suffering, for if they revolted it would take them off the track for paradise and onto the track for eternal damnation? And now we’re dealing with folk who believe the end times are coming (sounds familiar in so many ways) and it’s their job to purify the world for their God — and not believing exactly as they do makes you impure and an impediment to their eternal salvation.
I’d rather not live in fear. And I sure as hell won’t let fear paralyze me. So I can do without layering in more fear — whether real or not. Some can make the argument that their God is a God of love, who would not demand its/his/her followers to bloodily wipe out non-believers. But that God is letting others envision a God who wants that bloody purge. Here, I defer to Stephen Fry’s argument. I’m sorry but I cannot countenance a God who allows such suffering in the world, even if that suffering is in the guise of testing one’s faith, that you will be given something in the future that will fix everything and make it all right. I know for a lot of people, friends and family, I’m pushing it here. But living as if there were no God makes me a fuller, more human being. Being free of the fear of eternal damnation does not permit me to transgress like a wanton pagan; it makes me even more cognizant of how important it is to be ethical and moral. The simple Golden Rule carries so much power.
However, you might say that without faith in God what happens to your soul since after all the soul is the essence of what cannot be explained or understood, and whose cloth is that faith? What happens to your spirit? What about all that can’t be explained, or predicted? I can live with knowing my limitations, that I will not know or understand everything. In fact, that’s one thing that motivates me to shed my fear — the desire to learn, to know more. But paradoxically, the more I know, the more I know the scope and scale of what I don’t know. And one thing I do know from physics is that there’s always the factor of uncertainty. Ultimately, my soul — my spirit — is composed of everything these supposed God-fearing believers lack — which is empathy. That ability to envision yourself as someone else, that you are the other and the other is you. Before any of these black-hooded men pulled the triggers of their Kalashnikovs I am certain none of them imagined that it were themselves that they were pointing their rifles at. If our minds and hearts are sound, we cannot do evil to another if we can conceive of ourselves as them. That we are not compelled to violence or harm, but rather that we can choose kindness and to do good.
So I will feel for those who lost their lives in Paris this weekend — events that will be broadcast wide and far. And I will feel also for those who lost their lives this week in Beirut and Iraq and Syria and Nigeria, and all of the other places I don’t know about, who we will hear far less of because our Western media cannot imagine themselves to be those folk so easily. (Racism is founded on having no empathy for the other.)
That should be enough, but it isn’t.
It should be: Je suis l’autre.
But it isn’t.
Notes: I make no pretense that anyone, or everyone, should think, or feel, as I have explained here. This is merely an explanation how I deal with that penetrating and pervading fear, and how I overcome it. And I make no pretense that what I do is any better (or worse) than what anyone else does.
Last Sunday was my wife’s 60th birthday. What she wanted was a trip to Paris, but work and school schedules, and finances, prohibited it. But in an alternate life we all might have been there this week, and had we known that one of my son’s favorite bands, The Eagles of Death Metal, was playing, odds are we would have been at Bataclan. Grace. Grazie.