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.


Do Not Let This Suffering Be Normal

Last month, after being kidnapped by one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups, the world learned that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller died at the hands of ISIS.  Kayla’s tragic death brought her into the attention of the world. If ISIS had not taken Kayla Mueller in Syria, we may not have known anything about her. However, the nature of her death gave us a chance to catch a glimpse of an inspiring young woman—a refugee and aid worker that followed her call to sit with people in extreme suffering.

Of course no one is perfect, but Kayla clearly exhibited a profound depth of compassion and self-sacrifice at a young age. She took enormous risks, working in some of the most desperate and dangerous parts of the world, and did so with a sense of joy and deep purpose.  She felt a vocational call to alleviate the suffering of people without hope and to stand in solidarity with them. As a girl growing up in Prescott, Arizona, Kayla Mueller demonstrated a distinct sensitivity to the poor and suffering, especially those ravaged by society’s injustices. The depth of her identification with those on the margins of society is revealed in a letter she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011. She was 23 at the time:

mueller-kayla_vert-176962cb347a5b83106e3a279426d61ca73f525b-s800-c15_CreditNPR“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine.  If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.  I will always seek God.  Some people find God in church.  Some people find God in nature.  Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

(Kayla pictured right, source:

In high school, Kayla was active in the Save Darfur coalition, took part in environmental causes, and even won a local award for her volunteer work with organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and AmeriCorps. After graduating in 2009 from Northern Arizona University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, she decided to embrace the pain of the world in a more direct way, moving to India and Israel to work with refugees, and later in 2012 to the Turkey/Syria border.  In August of 2013, Kayla was kidnapped by ISIS as she was leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. She had been spending time in a Spanish Doctors without Borders hospital, sitting with patients and hearing their stories.

Some of us stumble through life looking for our life’s mission; others seem to know what they are destined to do from the time they are born. It appears Kayla knew at a young age that she had the brass ring in life (compared to the world’s standards) and decided to leave it behind and dedicate her life to bringing comfort to those with less security, comfort, and opportunity. A local Arizona paper quoted Kayla as saying:

“For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal …. It’s important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it and how privileged we are.”

As a young altruistic woman getting her hands dirty in the depths of the world’s pain and violence, Kayla didn’t demonstrate youthful self-righteousness.  She didn’t challenge others to sell their positions and make the kind of radical commitment she did. Rather, in a world marked by the crucifixion of hope and opportunity, she recommended that everyone stop and recognize their privilege. It appears she had already learned the complicated spiritual truth that gratitude and thanksgiving, rather than guilt, is the pathway for the deepest personal transformations, the kinds that crack us open to feel the suffering of others.

After years of working in the world’s most despairing places, Kayla still managed to see a sister and brother in almost any face. Despite growing up in divided times, and coming from a state known for discriminatory laws, she cultivated an almost unfathomable ability to forgive. She even managed to engage her ISIS captors in basic acts of shared humanity. In the last days of her life, Kayla spent more time worrying about her loved ones than herself:

Barack-Obama-Confirms-Hostage-Is-Dead-Us-President-Barack-Obama-Confirms-Us-Hostage-Is-Dead-252219“I wanted to write you all a well thought out letter (but) … I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears. If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else…. + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well.”
(Kayla’s letter pictured left, source:

As soon as her death became public, the media flocked to Arizona to piece together a story that might explain Kayla’s journey from her comfortable middle class life to a war-torn place like Syria. Blog sites exploded with tidbits of information about a humanitarian who always knew she wanted to pour out her life for others.

In the midst of these news stories, I became curious about her mother and father. I wanted to know how her parents introduced her to a world filled with the tension of both great blessings and horrible suffering. How did they raise a daughter with this kind of love for the downtrodden of the world? Where did they get the strength to let go when she decided to march into harm’s way? How would they cope in the future, especially in those silent moments of desolation and grief that is only known by parents who have buried a child? We all want our children to be good – but maybe not too good.

kayla-mueller_Aunt0I also wanted to know more about the people who influenced the inner dynamics of thought and feeling that shaped her ability to look at the agonies of the world with an unblinking gaze of compassion. I wanted to interview her ministers, her teachers, all the people who watched her grow up and helped her form the ideals that fueled her belief in a personal agency to transform the world around her. I wanted to meet the people who gave her early opportunities to experience the joy of serving others and witnessed her capacity to hold the wounds of the world in her heart and hands. I wondered how our students at the School of Theology and Ministry might influence others in the same way. Here at the school we take the time in our class sessions, in community groups and in other gatherings to name the inequity and inequality that we find in our world and reflectively engage real-world problems. Many of our students echo the sentiments that Kayla penned in her own words. They seek to use their own tools to relieve suffering—to work for a more just and humane world—and holistically develop as grounded, authentic ministers that encourage others to also live into their own potential.
(Kayla Mueller’s Aunt pictured right, source:

There are millions of young people setting off for adult life with a dedication to do something beyond themselves. They seek to find ways to contribute to society, carrying a lifetime of memories of human suffering that will never allow them to let the world’s problems become “normal.” Some, like Kayla, will have their young lives flame out like Roman candles—flaring brilliantly for a short time before they disappear.  We may never hear about most of those daring souls. However, we should never think that an interrupted life like Kayla’s fails to accomplish as much as those who live “long enough.” Often through history, the stories of young altruistic lives lost too early shape the moral imagination and inspiration of dynamic future leaders who bring the world to an entirely new place.

Aloysis Gonzaga, Stanislaus Kostka, and John Berchmans were Jesuits who all died young – Gonzaga at 23, Berchmans at 22, and Kostka at 17.  These three Jesuits, sometimes referred to as “Christ’s cadets,” stood out from the crowd because of their care for others, and became role models for generations of young people trying to decide what to do with their lives. They inspired others forming their ideals to dare to do something different than follow the status quo. Although their lives were short, they inspired a revolutionary pope to transform the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII’s vision for the Church began with his youthful meditation on the lives of these three “cadets,” young men known more for their promise than the accomplishments of their short, interrupted lives. As the leader of the Catholic Church, he called into session a worldwide council of reformation.  The Second Vatican Council opened Catholicism to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, put the Church’s social justice commitment into hyper-drive, and set loose a chain of events that has transformed the lives of millions and millions of people across the world.

All Saints Day Ceremony at Kabul International AirportAs shown by the lives of these young Jesuits and Kayla Mueller, if someone sets out to notice and diminish suffering in the world, you never know (and they may never know) what they will accomplish. But, more importantly, you never know who they might later influence by the witness of their life. After her death, Kayla’s parents issued a statement:

“We are so proud of the person Kayla was and the work that she did while she was here with us. She lived with purpose, and we will work every day to honor her legacy.”

We can take inspiration from the way Kayla lived her life. How easy it is to let suffering become normal. We are inundated with tragedy and suffering on the news, in our cities and maybe in our own lives. We are faced daily with the choice to let ourselves become jaded by the hurt of the world. Yet we are also faced with opportunity—the opportunity to welcome those on the margins. Like Kayla, we can choose to see a sister or brother in the stranger and treat them with dignity—to seek and encounter God in the face of suffering. Yet, in our ministry we are called, like Kayla, to find strength and urgency in our vocation. We are challenged to recognize the places of privilege in which we find ourselves, commit to deep transformation, and break ourselves open to the deep joys and sufferings of others.

I hope Kayla’s parents are aware that their child’s legacy is not just the work she did in trying to lessen suffering in Arizona, India, Palestine, Israel and Syria. Because the world knows about her, Kayla may change the world even more through her death than the great works she accomplished in life. That won’t heal the hole in her parent’s hearts, but maybe they’ll find some comfort in imagining Kayla’s fingerprints in the work of all the people inspired by a girl from Arizona who loved the suffering people in Syria enough to lose her life for them. Following in Kayla’s example, let us not allow this suffering become normal.