mourning the violence

It has been said that the basic, primeval religious impulse in human beings stems from the universal reality that in order for us to survive, something else must die.  Something inherently good in us struggles with the great tragedy in that truth, even as every day this great sorrow of life plays out again and again.  We cannot escape it, even if we consciously choose with great care what we eat, where we trod, how we persist.  The cycles and circles of life itself depend on it.

I suppose this dual need-and-fear of death has been the crux of the human predicament, the source of both its anxiety and its great sorrow, since we became human. Yet what causes me even greater sorrow this day is the taking of life without sorrow.  Worse yet, the taking of life with celebration.  This troubles me greatly, and makes me question if what I have thought makes us inherently human is indeed so. 

It seems to me that we, as humans, most humanely handle the harsh reality of death as essential for life, when death—the death of anything — is taken seriously, with solemnity and great weight.  Our ‘primitive’ ancestors developed intricate rituals in order that this remembrance to honor the sanctity and dignity of life might occur. I have read, for instance, that in cultures where animals had to be killed slowly, by poison, due to the lack of natural resources that might make more efficient and powerful weapons, a hunter was made to remain with his prey over days in empathy as it passed through the throes of death. This, to not take its suffering lightly, or to make its killing too painless for the hunter.  

I imagine this reality is the impetus behind sacred laws of all sorts…. the ten commandments, the 5 precepts, the golden rule…. to keep us grounded in a place of respect and compassion for life.  I have believed that we don’t proclaim and follow these edicts… to love, to show mercy, to forgive… simply because some outside authority commands it of us, but because they rise from within as expressions of who we are, of what it means to be innately human.

Today we have watered down our rituals, with perfunctory blessings before meals at best, and whitewashed and separated ourselves from the sacred passages into and out of life by removing them from our homes and institutionalizing them. We don’t witness our food being grown or hunted, our babies being born, or our grandmothers dying.  Many don’t consider at all the sanctity of the life they inhabit or consume.  We are both removed from the violence inherent in our survival, and from the reverence for life such a knowing imbues.  

At the same time, as a culture, we celebrate killing as redemptive vengeance, as retributive rather than remorseful.  Our Hollywood films depict such an assault on the senses that they are easily identified by their fierce intensity in a lineup of world films.  We use the language of warfare with our bodies… battle of the bulge or war on cancer… our politics, and our sports, and construct those metaphors so that there are not just winners and losers, but victors and victims. I cannot know if this is a cause or a symptom, but it is as if we have forgotten the language of reverence and dignity, know no other way to reflect and respond, and in our forgetfulness to regularly remind ourselves of reverence for life, through our culture, language, and ritual, I believe we drift far from who we are.  And yet, there must be something still alive beneath the rubble.

Last night, while reading quietly, my husband watching his favorite team on national TV, my son texted me that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  Soon thereafter, the news spread through the crowd in the stadium, too.  At a time and place where I felt the need for a solemn moment of silence, to reflect upon and adjust to the gravity of what I had learned, the enormity of the long tragedy of death upon death, a victorious, celebratory chant ‘U.S.A’ erupted instead.  As my husband flipped through the channels to land upon one celebration-riot after another,  though I tried to ignore the noise, I felt the same sickness in my stomach and need to ‘shut out’ the sounds of violence that I do when I overhear a violent scene in a movie he has landed upon in his surfing.  Even from another room, the sounds of violence assault, causing my stomach to tense and to turn.

Ironically, last night’s 60 minutes, aired just hours before our own celebrations at Bin Laden’s demise began, included an interview with Lara Logan, the woman reporter who was so savagely raped at such a celebration-riot in Egypt, when another regime was toppled.  She was targeted by her assailants because she was a symbol; though in this instance a completely innocent one, she was someone to focus and take out their pent-up and bestial rage upon.  At the same time, there seems to have been something completely unfocused about it, as if her assailants were swept into the mindless fury of violence by the mob.  I think a more accurate adjective for the fury might be ‘soul-less’, for I both wonder and lament where the soul of the precious human has fled, or been buried, to permit the body to partake in such atrocity. And where has its humanity fled, with its basic impulse for the sacredness of life?  I have read that some of our own celebration-riots last night and today have also led to destruction and injury.  Somehow violence seems to beget violence.  It feels utterly barbaric to me.

There is something so wholly distasteful and dis-easeful to me about a response to death that includes celebration, and I wonder about this bodily response in me.  Since ancient times, the bowels have been identified as the seat of our emotional and moral impulses, and of compassion…. an internal compass of sorts.  We say we are sickened when we hear of atrocities, or that something ‘leaves a bad taste’ in our mouths. We vomit to cleanse ourselves after trauma. We intuit the truth in our gut. Could it come from that basic connection between our stomachs and our survival, a survival that necessitates that violence be balanced with reverence? And when the sanctity of life is dishonorably sacrificed our stomachs remind us, when our language, our rituals, our culture, and our minds fall short.

In the meantime, my brain is rigorously trying to understand the celebratory and reveling response I have witnessed in my fellow human beings, to find empathy  for it, so as not to add to the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ targeting, and so that I don’t simply project my own insensitivity onto yet another human being, labeling him as the ‘bad guy’.  At the same time, are we not called to summon forth the inherent decency in our fellow human being? I so wish Obama had led his country in this way on Sunday evening, reminding it of the grave seriousness of this moment, and counseling the nation to behave with dignity.

 I understand that this man was a mass murderer, who committed great atrocities, and who harbored and harvested much hatred.  I understand that he instilled terror in the hearts of many people.  I do not minimize the very real and terrible suffering he has contributed to this world. And so I do understand on some level the relief of anxiety. If my tent was being circled each night by a rabid predator and I feared for my infant’s life, I can imagine the relief I would feel at its demise.  If my child had been killed, perhaps I would even find great satisfaction in the killing. Perhaps I would fall on my knees in gratitude and praise to my rescuer—human or divine – and as my fear lifted, make room for great tears of joy to erupt.  Relief sometimes looks like joy, I suspect.

But I would hope that something human in me would be sobered and pull me back to reverence and mercy over the body of the victim, to at least stop me short of spitting or gloating at its demise.  But I cannot be certain of that, can I? That which is in one is in all of us, and I certainly am above no one.  Pushed to the limit, would I also succumb to such rage-filled vengeance and gloating? I certainly have felt something of that rage in me, when I perceived that my children were being threatened.   It rose in me seemingly instinctual and inexorable -shocking me at my inability to contain it -to land upon an innocent bystander.  It was shortly after that my grief at what was occurring poured out.

I understand that many person’s emotions were manipulated in order to create the state of frenzy I witnessed last evening, as well as the frenzy that has allowed humanity to commit countless other atrocities.  We have been so woefully conditioned as a people on so many levels. So perhaps this might help me to understand the events of the past day. The stories of our lives, and the stories imparted that inflate our anxiety and fear, both real and imagined, create in us a great well of emotional energy that overflows like a volcano given a point of release.  Was last night’s celebratory wave an expression of cathartic release of oppression and pain? Was it cathartic for those men in Egypt when the same celebratory-rage was expressed against Lara Logan? In both cases, I think not.  This celebratory response is a hate-filled frenzy of another sort, a mindless fanaticism, not unlike the one we have feared and denounced in the other, but deny in ourselves. Some persons seem drawn to the frenzy as to a wild party.

Perhaps, we would do better in times such as these to look at our pain, to mourn the string of violence that caused it, to let ourselves be greatly, and deeply saddened by it……..and then to learn from our sorrow.  This great sorrow of life, which tells us in our gut that there is something inherently tragic about the killing of things in order for us to survive,  points us to the knowing that there is something even more tragic about celebrating that violence.  May that kind of sorrow call forth our deepest humanity.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Traildancer
    May 04, 2011 @ 12:18:34

    Vicki-Beautifully stated. You articulated my own response to Osama bin Laden’s assassination in a way that I could not. I felt embarrassed and somewhat appalled by our Country’s response. I don’t watch TV, but could not help but hear some news reports on NPR. Yes, violence only begets more violence: Wouldn’t it have been an amazing message to the rest of the World if instead of frenzied joy and destruction, if the US would have responded with silence and prayers for a peaceful and more tolerant world?

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