I heard on the news of the deaths of 12 people in Paris, the cartoonists, editors and writers of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and I don’t know how to live with these deaths. Maybe if it were just this one incident, not the deaths and firebombs that followed, not ISIL, not the deaths in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Israel, Palestine. Maybe if it were just this one time I could come up with a story to tell myself, of people who, perhaps, lived lives of such desperation and hopelessness that, in their eyes, they weren’t killing other people at all. They were defending an idea, they were creating hope. Or maybe they told themselves the cartoons hurt too much and they needed the pain to stop. Or maybe they told themselves their religion, their reality was threatened and they had to destroy the threat.
But the explanation doesn’t work. And for good reason. There are too many deaths, too much pain. There’s New York City. Not just 9/11, but Eric Garner. Deaths of African-Americans by police and deaths of police, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. No story can explain away their deaths because explanations and stories might have contributed to them. To kill someone is not just emotion burning out of control. A story is needed to fuel that emotion and keep it hot.
Humans have lived for thousands of years by creating an in versus an out-group. We live with, cooperate with, love the in-group and often de-humanize the out-group. We do this with stories we tell ourselves about us and them. We can’t afford to do this anymore. There are over 7 billion of us now and we’re growing exponentially. This leads to increasing complexity in human relations (and, of course, increasing stress on resources). We cannot continue to support a way of thinking and acting that deals with problems mainly by searching for villains. Or deals with problems by thinking we can just cut ourselves off from or discard millions or billions of other humans. We can no longer discard people with a story. Somehow, we must learn, I must learn, how to feel each killing that I hear about with a raw and unexplainable emotion.
But honestly, I don’t know if I can do this. I think it’s too much. It would be overwhelming. How could I work and play when I feel so openly? Even writing this blog is telling a story of sorts. My work and play and loving also get covered over, or diluted by stories. Isn’t my heart bigger than my thinking?
But what if my family or friends worked at Charlie Hebdo? Or I lived in Syria, Iraq or my family was killed in New York or Israel? There is no explanation big enough for that pain.
The closest I can come is justice. I shudder to bring it up, as I don’t want to dilute murder with economic analysis, but there needs to be justice for the slain, and justice for the conditions that might have contributed to the slaying. People are discarded, dehumanized by economic and political processes even more than by the gun. For one example, when wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, more and more people are ignored. In the US, real income for all but the top few has gone down since 1978-80. A few days ago, I was watching Robert Reich’s movie, “Inequality For All.” Today, 400 people in the US have more wealth than half of the rest of the population. This trend is world-wide. One billionaire means maybe a million people barely getting by. One billionaire doesn’t buy what a million individuals could buy. Concentrating wealth doesn’t create jobs; it undermines the whole economy. What are the implications of a collapse of the middle class and the swelling in size of the ranks of the poor? What happens to people living in poverty who get to see on television everyday the rich living in luxury?
Maybe, if we hold in our hearts the pain that others would feel from our actions, or the pain of dehumanization, there would be fewer killings? I don’t know for sure, but it feels right. The only explanation that works for me to keep my feelings alive is that all of us—all humans, all species, all life—we’re all equally alive. There is no out-group. That’s myth, story. The reality is that we are all in this together. We are all interdependent. To borrow an image from ancient India, we are in a huge web (or net, as in Indra’s Net). The world webs together. It’s not even that a tug in this section of the web is felt way over there. It’s the whole universe crawling, walking, screaming, dancing as one. And we need an education in web-being, or as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, inter-being.