Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ice Cream for Artillery Shells, Lipstick for Snipers

I used up all of my fear and worry and sorrow over fearful, worrisome, tragic things months ago, and I don't have any left. I don't feel anything when I hear the news anymore, and this has been as distressing as it can be for someone who isn't feeling. Do you remember that Jack Johnson song, "a billion people died on the news tonight, but not so many cried at the terrible sight"? I stopped crying, and it feels weird.

I'm so unable to appropriately cope with public tragedy any more that I find myself disdaining the general way in which others express grief. The same laments, over and over, combined with the certainty that it will happen again renders the hashtags and the Facebook posts hollow, at best. The most I could muster in response to the most recent mass-murder was, "Wow, that's a bummer." I have some idea of why I react this way now, but I haven't been able to escape it without leaping to the opposite emotional extreme.

As twisted as this may be, I feel a level of responsibility and desire to carry part of the pain experienced by those who are enduring far greater than I am, but I have found this to be a crushing and fruitless burden. More tears on my part doesn't equal less pain on their part. In light and in spite of this, I had a small realization yesterday that helped me.

There have been two bombings in Baghdad, Iraq in the last several days, claimed by ISIS. We are several days into the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims, a time of fasting and prayer. The first bomb went off at a popular ice cream shop, and I remembered that last year there was an attack in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, also during Ramadan. Last year, I remember thinking it was especially cruel to attack people during a holiday when people gather together with family. What is an ice cream shop if not a place of wonder and joy where families and friends come together to enjoy each other's company?

And yet, despite last year's attacks during Ramadan, or attacks on Churches in Egypt, people keep celebrating holidays. They keep leaving their houses, keep eating ice cream, keep going to church. Life goes on, and the best thing we can do is to keep living it with as much joy and normalcy as possible for ourselves and our children. I am trying to remember that within my own country and my own city too, when I feel helpless to prevent foolishness and pain.

It's difficult for me to find a good place to hang out in between debilitating sorrow and complete apathy. I am trying to mourn as best I can with people that I know, and speak up when I see injustice, but I can not run my feet ragged with protests nor cry my voice hoarse with slogans when those things become like slamming my body up against a wall. Exhausting but fruitless. More than that, I don't think it's the best response when the very people I'm worried for have more courage than I do. They keep getting ice cream as an act of defiance. It's not always an overt defiance, but more likely they continue to get ice cream simply because they want to put a smile on their child's face. Living as normally as possible can feel like ignoring the extraordinary going on all around us, but when the shocking becomes a daily ritual, it takes great strength and courage to stay calm, levelheaded, and put one foot in front of the other.

I heard an activist talking about her time abroad, and when she asked women in war zones what she could bring them, they asked for lipstick so they could keep on with their daily routines. It made them feel normal when everything around them was falling apart. One woman said, "I wear lipstick every day so that when that sniper guns me down, he will see that he has killed a beautiful woman." So I must be a bearer of lipstick and a maker of ice cream where I can not be a dismantler of bombs or shout loud enough to repair foreign policy.

"Activism" (in itself a term that has become hollow and coarse to me) isn't supposed to be self-flagellant, it's supposed to be humble and compassionate. Not "look how much pain I am in on your behalf", or "I want to suffer to make myself feel better about watching you suffer", but "how can I make your life as normal as possible for you"?

Keeping things normal does not mean being unaware of the struggle going on around me or being unaware of my privilege to have the option to live a pretty normal life. But I'm also learning not to punish myself emotionally and psychologically for having a measure of privilege, nor to assume that my privilege is the antidote to injustice (such that it's up to me to fix everything that's wrong in the world). As far as I've come to understand it, my privilege is an opportunity to listen. To listen to what someone else's need is, even if it's not as momentous as I think it should be. In short, even if it doesn't make me look glamorous or assuage my fears that I'm not helping enough. It's the chance to make someone else's worry my worry on the most normal level - I can't topple dictators, but I can buy lipstick.

If I'm waiting to be "of enough impact" I will never fill that hole, and I will continue to feel overwhelmed and ultimately deadened by my inability to fix everything. But if I can share ice cream and I can acknowledge the humanity and the courage in the mundane, I start to see, and feel, beyond the magnitude of sadness on the news tonight.

{image by Steve McCurry, taken from his Instagram}

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