“Why?” was the question that appeared on text message and mouth alike last Friday evening. “Why is this happening? Why now? Why them? Why us? Why?”
I didn’t know how to answer.
When my students and I discuss theatre history, it’s easy for us to skip over war and violence. We use it as a marker to indicate when new art began, the rare cases when theatre turned to protest.
We don’t talk about how many lives were lost or the devastation each land endures. We don’t talk about why violence destroys people, not because it ends lives, necessarily, but because it ends security, it strangles faith, it kills hope.
We don’t talk about the one small child who was killed out of the hundreds of thousands, leaving a mother without a child. (There is no word for it, in any language, what that is – a parent losing a child. Did you know that? Some languages get close, but they’ve never been able to fully encapsulate that loss.)
Time allows us to gloss over all of that. We can glance at it, use it as a bookmark in history for us to get our bearings, but we don’t have to think about each individual life. Time and the sheer volume of casualties permits us to forget.
Sans empathy, sans knowing, sans everything.
It’s much harder to express apathy when it’s happening to you, when the amount of lives are extensive, but not too many that you can’t take in each face, each name, each story. It’s much harder to forget when it could be you.
Both times I visited Paris, I went alone, which now seems altogether romantic and/or careless. If I had to choose, I would choose to be called “romantic.”
The last time I went was three years ago. I stayed in an apartment in a popular and trendy district and spent most of my time on “religious quests.” This, for me, included cathedrals and churches, Notre Dame to the Sacre Coeur, and, of course, a visit to Oscar Wilde’s grave.
My apartment was located between the site of the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan and Avenue de la Republique.
I say this now, not because I want to evoke some feeling of pity from you, the reader. This isn’t a story about my own “close call.” It’s not an affirmation of my liveness. I am not a survivor.
I say it only because I walked those streets. I ate in cafes and drank of their wine. I entered the patisseries near those locations and said the handful of French words I know: Bonjour, un croissant, merci. Granted, when I said them, I also threw in there a muy bueno, an arrivederci, and, inexplicably, a bow over folded hands. (I really need to learn French.)
I say it because the lives of the people I met were simple in only the way a human’s complex world can be simple. Now, those same people break my heart with sayings like, “This is the new normal.” “This is the world we live in.”
Their normal has been erased for one of violence, destruction, and the childless parents, whose pain no language can define.
It’s hard to believe this city, so rich with culture, passion, and beauty, could be diminished so.
The first time I journeyed across the English Channel, was as a silent participant in a tour group. We saw all the usual spots: The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, the River Seine. I traveled to the top of the structure, looked down on sprawling boulevards and arcs, smiled back at Mona Lisa, and viewed Paris from its main waterway.
We had some free time for dinner and I chose to split off from the group in order to find the Opera de Paris, like any Phantom of the Opera fan would do.
Once I had found it, I walked along its majestic exterior, picturing swinging chandeliers and devilishly handsome Phantoms.
I located a nearby cafe that overlooked the opera house and decided I would dine there by myself. They ushered me in, though I distinctly recall them looking me up and down to see if I were, in fact, an American who did not know the language. (I was.)
I sat down near a window and began to look over (*cough* attempt to translate) the menu. A couple from the tour group had also decided on that same cafe and, upon recognizing me, asked me to join them for dinner. They were a couple of newlyweds from California and they were excited to hear about my story, excited to tell theirs.
They surprised me by buying me my meal and by telling me they had been watching me, impressed the entire day.
“I would have never traveled alone,” the new bride had said. “That’s really gutsy, really brave.”
I had never thought of myself as brave or gutsy before, I had just wanted to go, so I did. Their kindness and generosity gave me a moment of pause, a moment to be proud of myself for my accomplishments. A moment to be eternally grateful for strangers’ warmth and act of good faith.
I tell this story, not because I want to revel in my “courage,” but because it, to me, is proof of the human spirit, our ability to listen and surprise and extend a hand to those in need. A human spirit that runs in the veins of every Parisian; an inherited tenacity that will launch Paris forward, despite those who launched feeble attempts to stop it.
So, when I receive messages or have conversations as to the “Why?” surrounding moments of senseless terror and violence like the attacks of November 13, I honestly come up short.
It’s so easy to slip into the system of fear. It seems simple or natural to just allow the fall to happen, to allow right-winged bureaucrats to generate fear in “The Other,” to close off our borders, to arm ourselves with high-powered (and highly toxic) weapons.
It feels good to be scared, because quite frankly I don’t know why these things keep happening. I have my ruminations and my sensibilities that allow me to see how hate and anger and fear can generate cycles of violence, but I can’t see the point of it all. I’m not even sure how it all started and, what’s more, I’m not sure any one else could pinpoint it either.
I still hold fast to the belief that people are generally good, built for kindness and empathy. We lift up cars when a person in dire straits requires it. We jump into frozen ponds to save drowning animals. We buy a single girl a meal because she had the guts to go it alone. We make art, not because we need to, but because it makes the world beautiful. Penicillin, yes, we need to make that. Music and sculpture and novels and theatre and film? No, we don’t necessarily need to make these things, but we choose to. We choose to make art because it make our lives a bit more special, it makes our hearts sing and our minds quiet. It turns us from “just living” to “being alive.”
Human beings are incredible.
I don’t know, but what I do know is this: it’s our responsibility to respond with love. To choose hope. To open our doors and welcome those in who need shelter more than we do. To buy a stranger dinner. To hear one another’s stories. To choose beauty. To choose life.
These are the weapons we have.
And it’s not going to be easy. The more I watch the news cycles and see video and hear testimony, I feel myself slipping into that self-destructive rhetoric of “punish,” “retaliation,” and “why?” It’s difficult to stay positive, to breed love and hope in situations like these. To not fear when you could be next.
Some days staying positive feels like labor.
But what is the other option? Embrace fear, accept hatred and violence as the “new norm?” Sure, that’s easier. That’s convenient. Answering violence with violence sure feels great in the moment.
But that is not Paris. That is not New York City. That is not London or Beirut or any other city that has recently experienced terror at this level. That is not what humans do. We choose to live, we choose to fill the world with beauty, we choose to love.
It’s up to us to not accept anything less than what our human spirit is worth.