Too much reality

I need to tell you how I’m feeling today. I should warn you that some of you will not like it. Some of you will think I need to get some perspective. Some of you will tilt your head to the side and lower your eyes. Some of you will get angry. A few may find common ground with me. I will speak with unvarnished truth about how I feel today, and if it angers you … well, maybe you need to get angry.

I will not stay feeling the way I am about to describe forever. At least I don’t think I will. It is where I was yesterday, am today and probably will be for a few more days. And that is the last qualification that I will make. If you are worried for your sensitive eyes or ears, then look away now.

I am boiling with anger. You know, most of you, that over two years ago my friend was murdered by terrorists in Kenya. In the course of doing my job (a church leader), I had to put my own grief on hold; the result of this is a series of symptoms with which I still live, which I’m told add up to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I didn’t think you could get that if you weren’t present, but it turns out you can. I jump out of my skin if someone kicks the dog bowl. A word, a phrase, a weather pattern, a noise, a story can send me spiralling into anxiety and grief. It can not affect me for weeks or months and then it will besiege me until my resources are starved.

Yesterday (Saturday) I was starved. I woke to news of the Paris terror attacks; within an hour my heart and soul were back where I was two years ago, receiving details from inside a besieged shopping centre, comforting a fearful widow-to-be, getting fateful news. Eventually, like many others, I took to social media to both express myself and see if I could find some solace. I found some; I also found people asking why we weren’t grieving also for the many killed in attacks elsewhere – Beirut, for example. And on it went; apparently we who were moved – moved by people slaughtered doing what I like doing, going to rock concerts and football matches – especially by this, don’t care for Arab lives. Apparently we’re over Westernised. Apparently, one person told me, I shouldn’t bring my grief to social media.

The truth is I can’t take it. I have my limits. If I processed all the death and destruction in the world the same way, I would not be able function. I would sit and shake and cry and shout and scream until I couldn’t any longer. Yesterday was almost unbearable at times; I only got going when a 6-year old insisted on a cuddle … now. Today was better because it had to be – I had a job to do.

T S Eliot said that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. How right he was. I can’t. You can’t either; you who sanctimoniously and self-righteously tell me I should be moved in the same way about everything. You can’t take it. If you felt like I felt yesterday for even an hour you would cease to meaningfully function. Have you tossed and turned overnight, wondering if your friend is safe, or a hostage or lying blood-strewn on a shopping mall floor? Have you been in the room when that phone call has been taken? Have you had to lead people on a journey of forgiving this?

We can’t take it all. We just can’t. We have our limits.

And don’t you dare, don’t you even think of citing Jesus. Even He, faced with the full weight of every moment of suffering, every evil deed, every murder and angry word; even He cried out in fear, asked for another way, sweat blood and asked why God had abandoned Him.

Of course Arab lives matter, the same as French or British or Kenyan or Burundian or Rwandan or Syrian or Lebanese or Palestinian or Israeli. But I can’t take it all, and if you say you can then you’re self-deceiving liar. You need to go to some war zones, some terror attack malls, some grieving families to get some perspective on yourself. Then tell me how much reality I should be able to take.

Paris moves me because I’ve walked its streets. Because I’ve been to more rock concerts than I can count and more football matches than I can remember. I can imagine myself there, in the midst of a carnage I can imagine only too well because of what I know from the inside.

So when you tell me, and people like me, that I must care equally … you do not know what you ask.

For the love of Christ, let us shake, mourn, grieve, cry, grow angry for a while. In time we will return to something resembling equilibrium.

We couldn’t do this every time, because we are human.

And if that’s such a sin, then we’re in more trouble than we know.

Charlie Hebdo and the deep wisdom of silence

Things fall apart.

The centre cannot hold.

Here we are again. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed afresh in a new city. This time the finger of fate points at Paris. Magazine staff, shoppers, police, security guards, caretakers. Lest we forget, in Nigeria 200-2,000 people (depending on who you listen to) are killed by Boko Haram.

Terrorism looses the same old anarchy in new places, in new contexts. People going about their daily lives have those lives cut short; we watch coverage, the term ‘breaking news’ suddenly scarily appropriate one more. The breaking news breaks us afresh.

As it should. It sounds absurd to say this; until terrorism threw its shadow over us and our community I had no idea how terrible it was. Violence and murder is one thing; to be killed in the name of some specious political or religious point whilst our friend was in a Nairobi shopping mall is something else entirely. What had he done to get caught up in it? He was living his life, doing some shopping. We all do it; simply, it was the last thing he did.

I could try to understand, and sometimes I’m tempted. I can’t, though. I can’t bring myself to try to understand the politics and religion of Al-Shabaab, the group responsible. To understand their politics, the situation in Kenya and Somalia would be, for me, to give them a patina of legitimacy. I can’t allow that to happen. I’d rather remember instead the Imam who stood on the stage with me at the funeral and gave me a hug.

So as Paris and Nigeria struggle for air in the suffocating light of tragedy, my heart goes out to them. I sit in the dust and I weep with them. I mourn, I rend my garments. I am angry, I am sad, I stand with them in their responses and pray they are comforted and emboldened.

As I do so, I see others are reaching for explanations, for qualifications, for understanding. The cartoons were racist and offensive; they had it coming; secular democracy and religious fundamentalism are always on a collision course. All true, probably. But not for now.

Now, in this moment, they mean nothing. Unless you are a policy maker or some such person who actually has to do something, your words are empty. If you qualify, if you explain too soon, you cede ground. You are Job’s comforters. You sound correct, and perhaps you are; but what is needed is silence, tears, mourning and the anger of the wounded, scarred, scared and bereaved.

There are too many words from people with too little influence, too little to actually say.

So be quiet awhile, and let ancient words speak.

So these three men stopped answering Job … (Job 32:1)