Something terrible happened on Friday night, a tragedy. The world is slightly altered from how it was. We don't yet know how much, but we can feel it. We are struggling to understand exactly how we feel and what our appropriate response should be.
This much we know: we are in shock. We recognize the sites, if not from visits, then from images, from books and from movies. They seem familiar. We can picture the carnage transferred to our great cities, our favorite restaurants, our stadiums, to our block even.
Yesterday morning I watched my social media feeds turn blue, white, and red, sprout hashtags about peace and prayers. People who never post anything societal, or political jumped into the fray with some anecdote about the time they went to Paris, a picture of themselves in front of Sacre Coeur, The Eiffel Tower, or lacking that, offer words about light, love, sadness and all thoughts to Paris.
I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out something to say that didn't seem accusatory, un-empathetic, unkind to the good intentions of good people.
And yet some those same posts, struck me as terribly callous and insulting. The grief and outrage, it seemed to me, was not just for the people of Paris, the dead, the wounded, the shell-shocked, or the trapped. It was also for ourselves. We felt it, we reported it, we posted it, because we can picture ourselves in Paris. Because it is a city full of people like us: Western, predominantly white, affluent, members of a secular democratic society.
It was not just some expression of universal empathy, or our goodness beyond borders. Two days earlier, we heard not, nor sought, any information about the dead of Beirut, their tragic stories and triumphs, the bravery of doctors, bystanders, paramedics and citizens in a city harder to picture yourself in.
We, our media, did not report it, because it was not shocking. Not to us, in our homes where we can't hear the explosions. It was to be expected, business as usual. On the map of our collective minds, Beirut, Bangladesh, Syria, Baga, and countless others, a relegated to another world, one of troubled, or war-torn countries, too complex for us to fix with simple words, and prayers. "Its not that we don't care", we tell ourselves, "it's that we can't carry all of the world's problems."
Is it so terrible, you ask, for people to feel empathy, to offer prayers? No, of course it's not. It is wonderful for us all to express feelings, to share them, to let those who are suffering know that we're thinking of them, that we feel a small smidgen of their pain.
Your feelings are valid, they are your feelings, but they are not the whole truth. They are not the whole truth about anything except who you are and what you feel at a given moment.
Frankly, many of the posts, while genuine on one level, also seemed almost obligatory:
"All thoughts and prayers for Paris, love and light, now look at this beautiful quilt I'm making, life goes on..." " Here, see, I'm sad, I organized some flower petals in the shape of a peace sign, in a vignette next to a croissant and a latte. #prayersforparis" Today, the Paris posts are mostly gone. We payed our token tribute, what more could we do, life goes on. Only it doesn't. For those actually grieving, time stands still. Life as they knew it has ended. Someday, a new life may begin, but it will never be the same, and it is certainly not starting two days after the tragedy.
How should we grieve then, for people we don't know, in places where we are not? Should we just shrug it off and go on with our crafts, bake sales, and baby pictures? Of course not. We could, for instance, take those feelings away from social media. To have real, complex conversations with people in our lives. If we have nothing to contribute to the conversation other than our vague sadness and one image solidarity, we could honor the dead by simply not posting anything on social media, but by hugging our loved ones closer, by donating to the Syrian refugees, by reading some in-depth articles about the geo-political origins of these events.
The Paris bombings are not an isolated incident. They have deep, complex roots in decisions our countries, France included, have made in the Middle East, over the last 100 years. They are inseparable from the refugee crises of Syria, from Boko Haram's terror in Nigeria, from the dead and dying in Beirut. To pretend otherwise is willful blindness.
When big news events happen, it is understandable that we want to and need to process them with others, and now more than ever before we have that ability. We can literally just broadcast our feelings to the world. We all want feel part of something bigger, but in that need to belong, we seem also to be shucking aside the feelings of those whose loved ones died just a few days before. Before you feel called-out for that Eiffel Tower-peace sign you posted (which you needn't), or get outraged, because something like this post might hurt the feelings of those who are in Paris, and are legitimately feeling terrorized, consider how the world's loud solidarity for one city's dead, must feel to those who were hurt, or lost someone in Beirut.
Pointing out the narrowness of our outrage and empathy, does not take away from the grief we all should feel for our fellow humans. It does not trivialize Paris, but it does broaden our feelings to encompass others suffering from the same terror. "A war on happiness", one Parisian tried to explain his shock at how the ordinary world could completely and terribly change in the course of a single night. Posts like this can sort of feel like that too. We may want to ask: isn't it enough that we feel and love? In some ways it is. Certainly the calls for love, instead of hate, light, instead of more darkness, seem inclusive and comforting to all. They help us all defeat the terrorist's implicit purpose: to make us fearful and angry. But the war on happiness, is not about being attacked for naive-seeming, if sincere social media posts, it is in part something that we ourselves started, or are complicit in, and therefor have a responsibility to understand. Unless the breadth of our feelings is only #deep, it might be a fitting tribute to the dead to learn something meaningful from their tragedy, to remember that the bodycount is much larger than 129, the shell-shocked number in hundreds of thousands, and that the war on ordinary life, on simple happiness, rages on with no end in sight.
EDIT: I have tempered the language of this post somewhat, to be more in line with my intention not unnecessarily hurting anyone's feelings further, while still discussing this issue honestly. Please know that I had to take a lot of deep breaths to be able to write about this with even as much composure I was able to muster, because like everyone else, I too have strong feelings about this, stronger than this post would indicate. If you can write them out, I would love to hear your thoughts, whether they're in line with mine, or not, but I ask that you also take a few deep breaths and try to express yourself with all the empathy you can muster.