Brussels Aftermath: The Search for Humanity

What do we do after a terrorist attack? How do we keep going? We feel afraid and helpless.  How do we deal with our fear?  Just as when someone close to us has died, the urge to do something, anything, is so strong. But what?

One European Union official on BBC radio this morning had an excellent suggestion. In an age where the first reaction is to go online and write something to our Facebook friends, he declared that it’s time to get away from the pull of social media, and come together in real time with real people.   He is urging Belgians later today to gather at one of the large squares in Brussels, to come together face-to-face with strangers, to show solidarity with the victims, to hold hands…in short, to vivre ensemble–to live together.

I know what this feels like.   In the days after 9/11, I, along with all other Americans and so many people around the world, were overcome by a profound need to connect with others.   I talked to people in Germany I hadn’t spoken to in years.   I went to the town square and sang in a crowd in front of the post office.   I found myself one day at the Unitarian-Universalist church (where I was not a member) holding hands in a circle with a group of strangers.   At that moment the idea of feeling like a citizen-of-the-world was not some far-out concept—it was happening. It’s happening now again, unfortunately as the result of despicable, misguided, inhuman acts designed to make us afraid of each other.

And we are afraid.   How can you not be? The world has changed and it’s no good sticking your head in the sand. But as we come to terms with new dangers, as we make sensible adjustments to try to protect ourselves from the unfathomable desire in some to deny their humanity and massacre the innocents, we have to reach out with greater determination than ever to resist that part of us that wants to demonize entire groups of people who are as innocent as the victims of the bombings.  We need to connect not just with our friends, our co-religionists, or fellow-countrymen, but with the entire world.  We must find a path into the future together based on what we all have in common: our humanity.

Stop reading this and go hold someone’s hand.


The Massacres of Innocents

Jakarta, San Bernadino, Paris, Boston, Mumbai, Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad….this is just the beginning of a list that will go on and on into the future as it becomes clearer and clearer where the world is going. A combination of easy access to guns and bomb-making instructions, worldwide media attention, and young men overloaded with a desire to fight have made all of us targets in what will perhaps be known as World War III. Unlike the other two world wars, this won’t be fought just with standing armies, navies, and airforces. It will be fought by individuals and small groups anywhere in the world who get excited by angry leaders anywhere in the world, leaders who grab their attention and make blowing yourself up with as many bystanders as possible sound like a good thing to do. Young males programmed by natural selection to fight find themselves living in what a Belgian official on the BBC today called “a mental ghetto” where they constantly hear the need to kill the infidel, kill the apostate, kill the oppressors, the bullies, the Other.   In these ghettos there is a very little debate or serious reflection or reason–it’s all about a Cause, Glory, and Death.

We have to face the facts.   There is no way to stop this unless we were to un-create the internet where any hothead in a distant country can spew hate and teach someone to build a bomb.  It’s not going to stop until we shut down the social media sites where young people are seduced into joining the Holy War,  or until we stop arms trafficking, or censor the media so the attacks do not get so much play and convince others that similar massacres are excellent ways to further their Cause. None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

The other facts to face were made clear in a Zogby survey that showed that, yes, a vast majority of Muslims in every country found extremist movements like IS and Al Qaeda were a “total perversion of Islam,” but unfortunately in every country there is a group who thinks the methods of IS are in accord with the teachings of Islam. That number is 15% in the Palestinian sectors, 13% in Jordan, and 10% in Saudi Arabia. What that means is that in Saudi Arabia alone there are 2.8 million people who would seem to support the wars, massacres, torture, executions, kidnappings, and rapes that we’ve seen of late.

There has been no end to the young men and sometimes women streaming to Syria to join the fight, shoulder-to-shoulder with IS. So where will it all end? Prepare we are in for another Hundred Years War, a war of attrition where dozens of innocents are killed every so often, more and more bombs are dropped in Syria and Iraq, and more and more draconian laws are put in place at home to try to stem the tide of attacks.

The only hope of changing any of this in the long run is to do what the Charter for Compassion is doing, and what the idea of Universal Sacraments is all about: find some common ground that everyone of every faith or no faith can agree is part of what it means to be human.   Teach young people that death is a sacred part of life, and that killing someone is not an avenue to God, but a plunge into the Dark Side. To counteract the power of a holy book is a tough job, but it’s being done—remember the vast majority of Muslims do NOT find IS’s methods acceptable.  They have rejected the jihadists’ death-worship.

Every country should enact laws, if they have not already done so, that to teach the slaughter of innocents, to persuade someone to become a suicide bomber is the foulest crime against humanity.  Freedom of Speech should not extend into that dark realm.   Rallying around the sanctity of human life is just a starting point to arrive at other universals that can bring us all together in a world that is coming apart at the seams.

The Sacrament of Laughter

I wrote earlier about the passing of my friend Rick two months ago (The Sanctity of Death). His memorial service took place yesterday, and it was really something. Rick was a professional clown and his wife was a mime. They met at the World’s Fair in Knoxville at a circus event and raised a family of performers. There was a lot of music and funny stories at the service as hundreds of friends and family members gathered to honor his memory. It was the best service I’ve ever been to or could imagine.

With the horrific news from Paris fresh in all our minds, and Rick’s death at a far-too-early age weighing on us all, the service managed both to make us ponder Life more deeply and to lift our spirits.   The family members who spoke brought us a picture of a man who was not only a funny guy, but also a profound thinker, a philosophy major in college, who went off to make a difference in the world, a warrior doing battle against the downsides of life with optimism and laughter as his chief weapons.   Rick believed in laughter, said it was a universal. In his younger days he had the idea of taking his clown act into little villages in Africa and Asia, to bring just a little bit of joy to places where people were struggling to get enough to eat. He called it “the search for the comic denominator.” Funded by the Peace Corps and Project Troubador, he hit the developing world like the Pied Piper.   After arriving in a village, Rick would get into costume (thick eyebrows and mustache, cane, oversized shoes–see the link to Project Troubador) and take a walk—or a waddle–in character through the village.   Children and adults both would come running, following him to an open spot where the performance would take place. Photos of mesmerized, happy children leave no doubt that he’d found that common denominator he was looking for.

He also found some lifelong friends in a group of musicians who ended up travelling with him through Project Troubador. Like Rick they wanted to bring the world a little bit closer together through what I have called the Sacrament of the Arts—folk music in this case. Yesterday the group re-united, playing during the service and afterwards. This was the perfect ending. With banjo, guitar, fiddles and voices, we all lingered in the church listening to these talented musicians, singing along on the songs we knew, letting the spirit of life flow into us with renewed force in the welcoming confines of the Unitarian-Universalist Church. It was the perfect remedy to stave off the darkness outside.

The Sanctity of Death

One of my friends died this week after a months-long fight with cancer. He was an extraordinary guy, a real clown.   I mean a REAL real clown: a professional gag-master who worked in and with circuses all his life, one of those people who has made the world a much better, happier place, but I’m not going to eulogize him here. His passing has put me in mind once again of the subject of Death itself, something most of us try to avoid thinking about too much.

Death is unsettling at best. It shakes you up. It makes you lose your footing in your day-to-day trudge through the world. It breeds disquiet and despair.   Coming to terms with it is something we have to do if we’re going to live. In my book I devote a chapter to the “Sacrament of Death” and a model for what I meant could be found in the passing of my friend.

To illustrate, I’m sorely tempted to share his wife’s searing descriptions of their last weeks together.   Some things, however, are too personal. In the selfie era where we want to make sure everyone knows everything about us all the time, it’s important to carve out some sacred space where only friends and family are allowed in, and you can’t help feeling that her writings on Facebook and CaringBridge are  only for those who knew him.

But as we read about his final days, it was evident that these were holy moments that brought the family members into a closer circle, doing their best to maintain their usual good humor amid the frightening approach of the inevitable.   Tending the needs of those who are dying is a sacred trust. We need each other so profoundly in those moments. It’s exhausting, it’s discouraging, it’s fulfilling, it’s transcendent. This particular path to the other side—the slow approach, without too much pain, is a great blessing in many ways. As my wife’s uncle put it the week before his passing, “I’m coming in for a nice soft landing.” There is an opportunity for a great deal of reflection and connection, if you open up and allow it to happen. It’s one of those times we feel most vulnerable, most generous, most human.

Let me also once again sing the praises of the good people of Hospice.   We need them so badly at this time in our lives and there they are, giving so much of themselves. There was also the benefit of another friend who is a death midwife, or as she prefers to call herself, a spiritual midwife. This much-needed service is a godsend at a time when most of us are an emotional wreck. It’s an inestimable boon to have on hand a caring, competent professional who knows what to do every step of the way to the frontier. There was no need to call any doctors at the end, no 911, no hospital. He slipped away day by day in the comfort of his home, surrounded by those who cared most about him.

They have chosen a three-day vigil in the home with calling hours for friends. His spirit has flown, his body lies in a homemade casket encircled by photos, posters of his circus days–and love.   Today, after a brief home funeral, the casket will be taken to the crematorium as our local band plays “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Vaya con Dios.

John Brown’s Raid On Harpers Ferry


I just saw an old show on youtube I remembered fondly from when I was a kid, The Great Adventure—one of the few shows on TV in the 60s that teachers could recommend to their students.   Each week was a dramatization of something from American history that was really worth watching: Harriet Tubman in action or a physician’s battle to convince people of the safety of smallpox vaccinations.   There were several episodes I remembered quite well, but the one I watched last week was new to me: John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.  Here’s the link. It featured none other than Jack Klugman who went on to star in the Odd Couple with Tony Randall. Despite Klugman’s New York City accent (Brown was raised in Ohio), he made an excellent John Brown, with his Old Testament beard and piercing eyes.   Brown believed God had a plan for him: to start a slave insurrection that would strike fear into the hearts of all Southerners.

Brown failed, as everyone knows, but “his truth goes marching on” and that truth is that slavery is an evil that no civilized people should accept. That so many in the South believed that blacks were actually happy in their bondage only goes to show how easily we can blind ourselves.   This of course is exactly the problem of the supporters of the Confederate flag today who claim it’s just a harmless symbol of Southern heritage, like the Eiffel Tower is to the Parisian. They have failed to see the other side’s point that the flag is the symbol of white supremacy. We see what we want to see until we have it rubbed in our face.

The Harpers Ferry raid is a great subject for a humanities class.   When we think about Brown’s goal of ending slavery, we applaud, but was he right to use arms to attain that goal? Is it ever right to take up arms against a government that systematizes harm to a portion of its people? And not just harm—rape, torture, and a thousand sources of mental anguish, including ruthlessly tearing families apart?  What alternatives were there?  What if Brown’s raid had succeeded and the slaves had come rushing to him for arms as he hoped, then marched south either killing their masters or making them flee until the whole South was liberated? Would those deaths have been justified, in the face of the daily torture and death slaves endured at that time?

According to the show, Brown believed in the end that God had not betrayed him, that by making him a martyr He was gearing the North up to complete the work of freeing the slaves.   It would be wonderful if, 150 years later, we could say we are free from this kind of thinking, but no, we see it more than ever….in the maelstrom that used to be called the Middle East where all the warring factions in all the warring countries are convinced that God is on their side, in the Vatican of course where God speaks to the pontiff and prelates, telling these men exactly what is right and wrong, and in our own country where half the country is convinced that they know what God wants of us.


Two Views of Death.

I have a friend who plays the harp for hospice patients. One of the facilities on her circuit is an Alzheimer’s unit. She brings her harp to the bedside where these lost souls lie confused, physically depleted, dying of cancer or heart disease.   Their race is run but they often cannot grasp what is happening to them and often no longer recognize their families.

This afternoon she entered a room where Barbara lay in bed with the TV blaring at full volume. Some well-meaning caregiver or visitor probably thought it would distract her.   She lay there with her mouth open–tense, moaning with every breath. Extreme suffering was etched on her features and she gripped the sideboards until her knuckles were white. She wasn’t able to talk. The TV blithely announced: “Warning: The following program contains scenes of surgeons performing operations that may be upsetting to some of our viewers.” My friend immediately flicked it off and began playing a quiet melody.   Within the first measure, Barbara had released her grip on the sideboards. By the end of the first song, she had stopped moaning. After half an hour Barbara had relaxed into a steady, calm breathing. Her face was peaceful, her mind at ease.

The Sacrament of Death is a time when caregivers and the dying come together in a spiritual union that can transcend the everyday world we normally inhabit. It’s a person-to-person connection.   Music can be transcendent too: the Sacrament of the Arts, a balm to soothe the soul in time of trouble. TVs are intruders, or worse, tormenters.

The second example has been in the news all week : seven men and women dead in their own church, victims of someone they didn’t know, someone filled with hate, someone who was fed a steady diet of rage and ignorance with the help of that technological wonder and curse, the internet.

This is the Dark Side of death, what happens when we fail to teach our children that all life is precious, and death a sacred moment, a spiritual opportunity.   Failing to acknowledge the sanctity of death leaves the door open to its worship, to the kinds of death cults that are destroying lives all around the world and have caused this tragedy in Charleston.  This is a profound sacrilege.   Call it a sacrilege against God if you like, or against humanity: it’s the same in the end.