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 bombings 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. Nothing can justify or explain away their deaths. All over the world, there are too many such deaths, too much pain. For example, in the US 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. To kill someone is not just emotion burning out of control. A story was 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 or narratives 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 defining villains to defeat. Or deals with problems by thinking we can just cut ourselves 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.
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 can also get covered over or diluted by stories. But isn’t my heart bigger than my thinking? 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 even appear to be diluting 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 through 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 worldwide. One billionaire means 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 middle class and 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 allow our hearts to feel the pain that others feel, and the pain that dehumanization brings, there would be fewer killings? I don’t know for sure, but it feels right. The only explanation that is viable and works for me to keep my heart 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 the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put it, inter-being.