(I first wrote this in 2015, seems like a good candidate for first blog post ever)
I live abroad, far from my family, and my time spent with them is precious. I am sustained by memories: of an afternoon at the park with my brothers and sisters, goofily kicking a tennis ball around in the light of a golden fall afternoon, turning clownish somersaults and performing recklessly acrobatic acts of spontaneous joy, with much laughter. Of my four-year-old niece – she is very blonde and asks me hard questions like, “Why do I not see you for a long time?” and easier ones like “Can I watch ‘Fwozen’ again?” Or my two-year-old niece sprinting laps around the bed, shouting with laughter when I catch her. These are perfect moments.
This is the stuff of life – the music that turns the prose of existence into a song of life.
Remembering “chase and laugh” games with my niece leads to another memory, an evening when the light of the setting sun seemed almost palpable as it streamed across fields of wheat ripe for harvest. I had joined young Aila and her mom for a walk and Aila began a game of “sneaking” up behind me until I turned to tag her – then she would shout with laughter and run away. Her mom laughed, and remonstrated. I laughed. We shared a perfect moment. I was in northern Iraq; Aila and her mom are Assyrian Christians. ISIS was two km away, with only a thin line of Kurdish soldiers between. And life was there, singing its song.
ISIS has left no doubt of their intent, destroying the lives of thousands, committing the most wanton destruction imaginable. And leaving none of it to the imagination, as they broadcast videos of their actions everywhere. They are helped by the nightly news cycle, and our minds are filled with images of rubble and bodies. This, we are assured, is what life is like in Syria. In Iraq. In the Middle East. Thus, not only have people’s lives been destroyed, in the minds of millions of people watching, the very possibility of life is destroyed. That is, according to the facts we are presented, life as we value it doesn’t exist in these places.
Our nightly news cycle has bludgeoned us with images of death and destruction. Nothing has been left to the imagination – including good. What happens when we lose our ability to imagine good?
Hate. Graham Greene wrote: “Hate [is] just a failure of imagination.” We feel it now, vaguely, this failure; we vaguely feel that something has been taken from us, we vaguely feel ourselves on the brink of an abyss. There is a present urgency to name what is happening, to name what we are fighting: “war on terror;” “clash of civilizations.” Like a cornered boxer, we are hunkered down and have latched on to the enemy; it is the thing that fills our horizon. But in becoming consumers of darkness, we are beginning ourselves to be consumed by it. And we are afraid.
How to free ourselves from the cycle of headlines, that feeds us body counts, timelines, in an endless repetitive stream? How to free ourselves from fear? By remembering what we are fighting for – the same things men and women throughout time and the world over, have fought for: love, joy, beauty – the stuff of life.
ISIS has successfully cast a shroud of fear far and wide – but we need not be helpless. We can throw it off – by adding to the beauty, adding to the joy, by responding with love. We need not spend our imagination in imagining the worst.
We can and must redeem it because we need imagination to see the beauty of lives so far away.
In the very beginning of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien spends significant time describing the Shire, the beautiful homely home of the hobbits. He wanted us to come to love it enough to understand, and feel in our guts, that it was worth risking everything for – because, eventually, that would be required.
That may be what is required now. We believe in human rights, but we must also believe in human beings. The question is: do we have ears to hear the music of lives like Aila’s, and her family’s and their neighbors? And then – do we love enough to risk everything?
Aila at sunset.