Standing Hopeful in the Tragic Gap

Once more the news is filled with stories of mass murders at the hands of terrorists. In the past few weeks, ISIS claimed responsibility for downing Russian Metrojet flight 9268 in Egypt, the two suicide bombers in Beirut, and six terrorist attacks in Paris.  At least 400 were killed and 352 injured.  Unfortunately, these murders are just the first round of the death and destruction when violence begets violence.  A coalition of nations is already looking to kill the killers–those in ISIS associated with the small group of men initiating the carnage across three countries.  Since any strong military response employing the dropping of bombs is an inexact science, many more innocent people will die in Syria and other targets in the Middle East, though the western press will not report on these figures.  Nor will the media attempt to share the human-interest side of the innocent deceased occurring in a foreign land that is hosting a terrorist organization, as they do so movingly when Americans and Europeans are killed.

As the body count rises, I find myself thinking not about the lives lost in Egypt, France and Lebanon, or the mystery of the making of the terrorist mind, which is necessary to prepare someone to consider acts of unspeakable cruelty.  Rather, I have been asking questions about the collateral damage of these terrorist attacks.  When unintended victims are accidentally killed or injured in military responses, it is customary to refer to them as “collateral damage,” a euphemism that allows people doing a dirty job to feel better about the mistake of killing or wounding the wrong person.  But the full extent of collateral damage is never reported in the media, in part because you cannot really measure it, but also because we don’t like to think about the unintended suffering we create when we allow ourselves to devolve into an “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” moral philosophy.

terrorism.jpgThe research on the psychological effects of terrorism on survivors is still in its infancy, but some findings suggest it produces a unique form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  The malicious and unpredictable nature of terrorism creates a different dynamic for survivors than do other traumatic events.  Low morale and diminished social cohesion can become long-term community effects after an attack, and the effects can linger longer than in other types of trauma. Terrorism also has a unique ability to open up the racial, economic and religious cracks occurring in a society, and can create a perception that specific ethnic, racial or religious groups are the real cause of the terrorism. The FBI, for instance, found that anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped from 28 in 2,000 to 481 in 2001.  Most of these crimes occurred between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2001, direct results of the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington DC.  Such xenophobic thinking is already manifesting itself in public policy, more than 30 governors declaring their states will not take Syrian refugees, and the U.S. House of Representatives voting overwhelmingly to close off U.S. borders to people fleeing the chaos of that region of the world. Terrorism also creates long-term adjustment difficulties.

A study in 2002 found that two months after the attack on the World Trade Center 17% of the nation still had symptoms of PTSD.  We don’t really know the true effect of terrorist attacks on survivors and loved ones, but the sad reality is this: every lost life, whether in the Sinai desert, the city of Beirut, the 10th arrondissement of Paris, or an isolated village in Syria near an ISIS encampment, initiates a chain of suffering that reverberates along the connective tissue of extensive networks of humans.  Husbands and wives lose the rich companionship and increased economic stability of a shared life; moms and dads are robbed of the life-altering experience of parenting sons and daughters; children and grandchildren grow up without the unconditional love and identity formation provided by parents or grandparents; sisters, brothers and cousins are denied growing up and growing old with siblings who may annoy them at times, but also provide emotional anchors for an entire life span; and friends and coworkers lose the companions and special confidants that keep life in balance and bring unexpected joy and comfort to the many challenges of daily living in our times.

vigilTo capture the full cost of terrorist attacks and national responses, you need to tally the broken hearts and wounded souls left in the wake of the violence, not just the lifeless corpses.   The survivors of these tragic events can spend much of their remaining life crippled by the memories of their ordeal.  Problems with anger, feelings of insecurity and distrust, survivor guilt and even prejudicial thoughts and feelings about others can magnify.  For those unwilling or unable to seek out professional counseling and psychiatric interventions, it is not hard to imagine that they are likely to seek escape in various forms of addiction, or to live a small life, withdrawing from family and community to live an under-stimulated life that doesn’t stir up the hyper-vigilance that is part and parcel of post-traumatic stress.

Thinking about PTSD feels familiar to me.  In an earlier period of my life, when I worked with youth in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, I experienced a series of traumatic events that gives me empathy for the survivors of terrorist attacks. In a one-year period I was the victim of multiple armed robberies, burglaries, and threats. My background, joined with my youthfulness, made me one of those young adults who thought he was immortal.  But, several months after I stopped living in the neighborhood I started developing PTSD symptoms.  Ironically, the person who made the diagnosis was not my doctor, but a good friend who had served in Special Forces and suffered himself from post-traumatic stress.  When I described the symptoms I was having, he identified them immediately.

Walking through PTSD is a painful and complicated process. Encountering or witnessing a vicious and violent act can rip at the very fabric of our human capacities to build a secure, common life.  Trust, safety, hope in a tomorrow, belief in the inherent goodness of others and the possibility of a shared humanity, despite our differences, are all challenged before the altar of a terrorist-level trauma.  Most of all, such experiences can rob a person of the ability to forgive, rendering their life a hellish ordeal of resentment; an unending personal narrative focused on experiences of unjust loss and real and imagined wounds.  In the process a person’s pain and shattered dreams can become the central feature of a family system or community legacy, making it that much harder for ancestors to learn to surrender to the vulnerability that is necessary for true love and true community.

fenceIn Unfashionable Observations, Friedrich Nietzsche notes that a child plays “between the fences of the past and the future,” and one of the great gifts of childhood is the ability to live in the present, unencumbered by the past, and without worry of the future.  But, the soul wounded by terrorist level wrong has no fence blocking the memories of the past, and it can cloud and overwhelm the present and render the future and its dreams unattainable.  In such cases, humans become a prisoner of the past, and the only way to find liberation is walking down the difficult path of memory.

Elie Wiesel gave a speech in Germany in 1987 on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous night Germans flooded into the streets to destroy the property of Jews.  The event marked a key turning point in Third Reich’s movement toward implementing the Holocaust.  “We remember Auschwitz,” Weisel said, “and all that it symbolizes because we believe that, in spite of the past and its horrors, the world is worthy of salvation; and salvation, like redemption, can be found only in memory.”

desertWeisel is speaking out of the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, where memory is a fundamental human ability that God is constantly asking people to exercise.  “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt,” Hebrews are told in the book of Deuteronomy (5:15; 15:15; 16:2, 24:18),” in one of the more curious commandments associated with memory.  Why would it be so important to remember the horrible experience of slavery?  Is it to reconnect with the experience of liberation from slavery?  Or, is its importance to remember the pain of our past and learn from it?  Parker Palmer, a man who found a way to translate a Quaker Christian worldview for a secular audience, would say the latter.

Palmer writes eloquently of “the tragic gap” in human experience.  He defines this gap as the chasm “between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.”  Standing only in the imperfection of reality can lead to a “corrosive cynicism” and chronic anger at the world’s dysfunction; standing only in the possible can lead to a form of “irrelevant idealism,” building castles in the sky that ultimately does nothing to alleviate the pain in the world.  When we cling to our ideals loosely enough to engage reality, it will break our heart.  But, it is standing in that brokenness, in the tragic gap, that actually allows us to grow as human beings.   We can cling to our memories of the mentors we have had, the books, music, films and experiences that have shaped our thinking and feeling that have inspired us and raised our vision and expectation of ourselves and the potential for the world.  This breaks open our hearts, and while it can feel like it will kill us, remaining in the tension allows the God within us to lead us not only to an inner quietude, but also creative paths that will allow us to realize some of our ideals in the world.

It is in the crucible, or as Palmer would say, the cruciform way of living, that we can trust that the tragic gap will break our hearts but not shatter them, and in the process will bring transcendence and transformation to the crosses in our life, with a recurring resurrection of hope and possibility.  Our memories, a carrier of trauma and grace, can build for us a habit of heart and mind that makes us more resilient in the face of the imperfection of the human condition where saints and terrorist cohabitate.

9-11memorialNew York City has a memorial to Palmer’s theory about the cruciform way of life.  The 9/11 Memorial Museum is a poignant reminder of the direct and collateral damage involved in the violent killing of 2,726 people on September 11, 2001.  One section of the museum is a series of high-walled hallways with floor to ceiling pictures of every person killed.  As you walk the halls, soft, recorded voices recite the name of each person with a picture on the wall.  In many cases, a family member or friend of the deceased provided the painful voice on the recording.  Small exhibits show artifacts from the rubble that were found next to the dead bodies, with many hinting at the damage caused to the love network of one solitary death remembered: the dust-covered cell phone of an ambitious young man recently married who lived with the phone to his ear.  He worked hard, made the right kinds of decisions for a comfortable lifestyle, and planned his life so that he could retire early and lavish his children with attention; a singed red wallet of a woman whose picture showed a joyful, vibrant smile in life, was found across the street from the Twin Towers on the roof of a hotel; a $2 bill and another wallet, this one belonging to a man who carried the bill as a reminder that he and his wife had a second chance at happiness after both experienced painful, failed first marriages.  The 9/11 Museum is designed to break our hearts.  But, the museum does something else.  It tells the story of everyday heroism, women and men who risked and lost their own lives to help others, and it tells the story of human dignity in the worst of situations.

lightbulbIn PTSD, you block out certain memories, or at least try to block them out.  But, for healing you have to remember those traumatic memories you would rather forget. You don’t just remember THE trauma, but many of the other traumas that occurred that you did not take the time to remember, understand and release.  The 9/11 Museum attempts to capture memories of both the horror and the grace under fire of that fateful day on Sept. 11.  Perhaps the memories recorded in the museum can serve the model of memory reintegration proposed by the theologian, Miroslav Volf.

Volf has an interesting image of what we can do with our memories of trauma.  Volf is the son of a Pentecostal minister, studied theology in the U.S. and married an American woman who is also a theologian and the child of a minister.  After finishing his degree, Volf returned to his native Yugoslavia, which was under communist rule, and was drafted to a mandatory year of military service.  He immediately informed his commanders that he was happy to perform his civil duty of service, but would not kill someone due to his religious convictions.  For one entire year, his commanding officer repeatedly interrogated him, accusing him of spying for the Americans and betraying his country.  Volf never confessed to anything and was never arrested, but he lived for more than a year in humiliation and fear.  His book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, is an attempt to come to terms with the trauma of that year, and his particular animus toward his commanding officer, who is known only as Captain G.  Volf wants freedom from this past wound, and makes a Christian case for not only forgiving his tormenter, but ultimately getting to a point where he could reconcile with Capitan G, even if only in his imagination.

Volf sees the personal narrative of our life as a patchwork quilt that we stitch together from a growing group of memories that is always expanding.  Like all good quilters, we are constantly trying to know what to remember and what to discard and our narrative can become very different depending upon how we stitch the memories together.  “We are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us,” says Volf.

We are personally healed, he believes, not just by remembering traumatic events, and retrieving memories and the feelings associated with them, but by interpreting those memories rightly.  What he means by this is that our own imperfections, the soul wounds of the perpetrator of evil, the contexts that give birth to moments of grace and violence are all part of the story that leads to horrendous actions.  This is not to excuse anyone, but to see rightly that the human condition is a fractured one where perfection and pure motivation does not exist.  In this broader tapestry, Volf believes, we have the power of making our memories, even those in which we have suffered wrongly, part of a “larger pattern of meaning,” making a new “patchwork quilt of one’s identity.”

dandelionJust in the past few weeks, many thousands of people across the globe have had the torment of violent and hate-filled memories introduced into their lives.  Those memories will haunt and fracture and overwhelm.  But, let us hope and pray those affected by these terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Moscow, the Sinai Desert, and the village and regions in Syria undergoing saturation bombings will have people close to them that can help survivors patch quilt their memories into Volf’s larger pattern of meaning.  One that makes more room for love and grace, and mercy and forgiveness than is now occupied by only terror and destruction.  If this happens, the victims of collateral damage in this situation will have the power to stand in the tragic gap and help us all to rise above this dark moment in human history.


Hope for a More Just and Humane World

“I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.” ~ Nelson Mandela

As racial tensions erupt throughout the United States, the Islamic State continues its murderous rampage, Russia jockeys for Cold War influence, and random gun violence shatters our confidence in safe environments for our children, it is little wonder many people feel anxious and uncertain about the future.  At the brink of the winter of 2015 we are faced with a sad realization: we are once again in dark times that cry out for the hope of new possibilities in our world.  Once more we agonize for new resources for our own troubled and fearful hearts so we return to the work of building a more just and humane world.

The flames of hope are fanned at some times in history more than others.  But, inevitably times of hope are usually brief before a raft of issues rattle our trust in the possibilities of a new kind of human community.  Perhaps this is the hardest lesson we assimilate in the task of becoming fully functioning humans: circumstances can capsize the ship of our life and can do so on the turn of a dime.  Without hope we are a dingy adrift in high seas.

In the past few decades, we have had a new feature added to the natural patterns that construct and deconstruct our hope.  It appears the world shifts back and forth on shorter cycles between times of hopefulness and hopelessness.  Consequently, it doesn’t seem like we can hope for very long.

The great losers in these shorten cycles, I fear, are the young.  Research continues to show that they are becoming increasingly crippled by an unending deconstruction of their hopes for life and the world.  According to the Parent Resource Program of the Jason Foundation, each day there are an average of over 5,400 suicide attempts by young people grades 7-12.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and the third leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18.  More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease.

Meanwhile, large numbers of young adults consider the world’s institutions undependable, those with power corrupt, inept or both, and social and political advancements unreliable and overturned by the next election or leader.  Although some young people remain engaged in the world and manage not to lose heart, others respond to these uncertain times with anger, and large numbers fall into indifference or despair.

Of course, if you have historical consciousness and a global perspective, you know that every moment of human history is a time of crisis with a desperate need of hope for someone.  It is hope, in fact, that provides the ultimate human resource for facing the next wave of chaos that will swirl around us.  Every generation needs to find its own paths to hope, if they are to achieve anything significant.  For most of human history, the path most frequently traveled has been found in religious and spiritual wisdom that ignites and sustains hope.  Every historic tradition brings a different set of resources to the world’s hope-destroying challenges.

2407292423_68143fd8de_zHere are just a few from the Christian well of wisdom: Bishop Desmond Tutu, growing up in the Anglican tradition, has the following reflection: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”  Maturing in the heart of the American Baptist tradition, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., found solace in his many disappointments struggling for civil rights by realizing his crushed dreams were merely a “finite” reality, while the deep, pulsing hope that motivated him was grounded in something “infinite.”  As someone raised in the Calvinist tradition, poet Emily Dickinson came to think of hope in the metaphor of feathers and singing: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”

Whether suffering under the boot of an oppressor, dealing with plagues, famines, droughts, or natural and human tragedies, small groups of people have always huddled around small candles of hope during the most desperate times of human history.  We are all here, and enjoying whatever freedoms and comforts we have, because they did.  History proves that hope is one of the keys in creating an indomitable spirit, and such spirits are the salvation of the human condition.

7258773288_f6c372c90e_z (1)Despite the headlines, and even our own feelings, hope is all around us, no matter where we live or what the circumstances.  It exists in every bittersweet longing for a horizon for the better days; it murmurs in the depths of the quiet confidence of parents pressured and overwhelmed by life’s demands and disappointments, who keep getting out of bed each morning to work for a shared belief in the future of their children.  Hope manifests itself in the humor shared between people at difficult times, forcing the fear and despair created by a situation to surrender its ground to laughter.

You see hope in any people struggling for humanity and freedom in totalitarian governments, the American mother in an impoverished inner city community who believes her child will one day attend college, or the Native American father who trusts in his ability to break a cycle of poverty for his family.  You see it in the Latina daughter who goes off to university as the first child to attend college, and instead of majoring in something leading to a more lucrative career, majors in education in order to return to the migrant community she came from to inspire the next generation with hope in a different world.  You see it in the Vietnamese father and mother living in a poor region who mortgage their home in order for their daughter to pursue a degree in another country.

Hope manifests itself in every act in which nobility, character, self-less sacrifice and honor touch a human soul.  It provides the ballast for a buoyant soul that can float above chaos and become a beacon to others of a promise in a different kind of human condition.

15786375696_5d105eb54cThe news is filled with stories of such hope, although the negative spin in many news cycles may require you to look closely to see it.  When someone like Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, the U.S. Army Ranger and medic turned humanitarian in Syria, defiantly refused to become a propaganda pawn before he was killed by his ISIS murderers, hope took a stand. Only his friends and family may have known the reason he did not read a prepared statement before he was killed like other hostages—Kassig hoped in something bigger than his captors could understand.

People of hope recognize truth in the words of international shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who married former first lady Jackie Kennedy, after she lost her husband, President John F. Kennedy: “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest,” Onassis once said.  “We must learn to sail in high winds.”  People of hope can sail under any circumstances.

5319347783_a02946c4d3_zThe season of Advent, which began on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, is an entire religious season focused specifically on celebrating and strengthening hope.  The importance of this annual liturgical reflection cycle on hope for the ancient Christian community is demonstrated by the amount of liturgical time that is dedicated to this season.  Advent constitutes 7.5% of the liturgical year.  It is also not an accident that early Christians positioned the season of Advent at a time of the year when days grow shorter.  In darkness we learn to look for life, and in nature’s annual cycle of death we discover the relentless emergence of new life.  Lastly, it is in times of cold that we learn to appreciate the warmth of human caring and touch and its ultimate transcendence of circumstances.

In the past, many religious traditions, perhaps Christianity most of all, erred in concentrating the objects of hope on what awaits us beyond the grave.  There was too much talk spent on personal salvation, and too little on our agency as people of faith and hope to change the institutions of the world, and even find creative ways to beat the brokenness of nature.  Beginning with the Social Gospel and Catholic social teachings in the late 1800s, which was built on the foundation of older traditions of distributive justice and the cardinal virtues, most denominations began a course correction that is still underway.  Other religious traditions have had similar renewals of those aspects of their traditions that call people to place their hope in service to combating the dehumanizing elements of our societies.   We can’t bring heaven to earth, but we can bring glimpses of it.

As the forces of secularization in the 20th century moved the goal posts in most western cultures closer to the immediate needs of the world and away from such distant horizons as “life after death,” at times religious traditions have fought the process.  But, a benefit of these movements of secularization has been that they have helped communities of faith to see more clearly that it is grossly insufficient to tell the poor, hungry and homeless that their reward will come on the other side of the goal post of life.

Even as religious traditions found new ways to work for a more humane world, the quest for hope, and the religious symbolism associated with it, found new ways of manifesting itself.  Hope infiltrated the culture with less and less direct association with religious ideals and principles.  You can see an example of this kind of evolution by looking at one song in American history that deals with hope.

8157875628_4e0b3ef926_zIn 1939, the “godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), wrote a popular song called, “This Train.”  Tharpe, a Gospel singer, was a music superstar in the 1930s and 1940s.  She built off a fan base in the black churches to become a cultural troubadour bringing spiritual lyrics into harmony with a kind of pre-rock and roll musical score.  Tharpe inspired many future music megastars, including performers as divergent as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

In the dreary ending of the decade of the Great Depression, “This Train,” used the metaphor of a train chugging toward a land of hope.  The train was filled with people who had achieved a certain moral purity, and were headed for the world of humanity’s dreams (See here).  Mumford and Sons also did a version of this American classic song in a New Orleans jazz and country fusion (See here).

Tharpe had one foot in the church and one in the world, but proposed an image of hope that found a new audience in a later generation through Bruce Springsteen’s 1999 song, “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  Springsteen’s tune has become a cultural icon of the power of hope, particularly in times of struggle.  Politicians have used  “Land of Hope and Dreams” to rally the base, activists to inspire volunteers and donors to contribute to hurricane relief, and many other individuals and groups to stir up the excitement and muster the resolve for social justice initiatives.  Rolling Stone magazine once called Springstein’s version the “rock & roll ambassador’s default tune for the dispossessed,” and the Associated Press named it “ a roar and call to arms” for building a better world.

With Springsteen’s version, Tharpe’s appeal to moral purity as a ticket to the train is muted, and replaced with a message of hope for an inclusive audience.   His locomotive makes room for the many different kinds of people in the diverse world we now call home.   These people are looking for a better life for themselves and their loved ones.  Springsteen identifies the passengers this way: “… This train carries saints and sinners … losers and winners .., whores and gamblers … lost souls … the broken-hearted .. thieves and sweet souls departed .. fools and kings.” On Springsteen’s train “dreams will not be thwarted,” and in a kiss to Tharpe’s original version: “faith (and saints) will be rewarded …”

You don’t need to believe in the concept of the incarnation, which is celebrated in the Christian Advent, to appreciate the importance of building and maintaining a capacity for expectant waiting and hope, which are the core values of the Christian season.   Most faith traditions recognize the divine spark in the human personality – the dignity residing in every human being regardless of the person’s social location, educational level, personality strengths and flaws.  It is this deep level in the human psyche that Martin Luther King’s infinite love dwells.

For centuries, people of faith have realized that it is important to spend concentrated reflection time each year focusing on the virtue of hope and the beacon it provides for imagining a different kind of world.  Whether we hope with a horizon that reaches beyond this world and life, like Tharpe, or within the limitations of what we know on this side of death, like Springsteen, we are still engaged in hope.

David Whyte, the poet, puts it this way: “Remember the way you are all possibilities you can see, and how you live best as a appreciator of horizons, whether you reach them or not.”   Hope lets us touch, taste and smell the horizon, even if like Moses we are unable to enter the Promised Land.

May this Advent season leave us all more hopeful, and may we come to experience the train of life as an opportunity to embrace the closing vision of Springsteen’s ode to hope, a vision taken right out of the Hebrew prophets:

“For this part of the ride

Leave behind your sorrows

Let this day be the last

Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine

And all this darkness past.”

Hope may not get you there.  But, it will give you strength to keep trying, and that makes all the difference in the world