A Guest Post by Ali, of Meadowsweet & Myrrh
Jeff’s last post illustrated very well the kind of divisive rhetoric utilized in most political speeches these days, language that takes for granted an implicit superiority of American citizens and soldiery, and that rejects understanding, compassion and forgiveness for fear that such things will lead to acceptance of and complicity in violence (that is, those forms of violence deemed unacceptable by the State). His post, by reversing the target of this rhetoric, raised a lot of hackles and provoked a lot of feedback, through comments and email, about the basic immorality of justifying violence and excusing killers. Now, with his gracious permission, I would like to try my hand at rewriting Obama’s speech, not by reversing its aim, but by turning the rhetoric itself on its head, and speaking in terms of inclusion rather than exclusion, connection instead division. This is the speech I wish Obama had given, though for reasons that will become obvious, it is not one I ever expect any political leader in this country to give.
A tragedy like the one that claimed the lives of thirteen people at Fort Hood, indeed any tragedy of sudden and senseless death, challenges us to reevaluate our priorities, as individuals, as a community, and as a nation. In our grief, we reach out for meaning, for reassurance and comfort, and for a sense of peace and goodness in the world. During such times, it would be so easy to turn like those before us have done, to familiar words of patriotism and national pride. It would be easy to give these deaths the meaning of noble sacrifice in a greater cause — and to name that cause with words like “freedom” that we have claimed as exclusively our own, though truly such things belong to all people, inalienably, as the founders of this country knew so well.
But before we seek the greater cause of justice in this tragedy — that is, before we rush to justify these deaths — let us sit for a time and accept the grief and sorrow that we feel at this passing. The task is a difficult one for us, whether we knew the dead personally or only came to hear of them after their lives had ended, but as a community, as a people, we must strive to live up to the bravery and honor we claim to value and admire so greatly. So let us look courageously and with compassion into our sorrow, let us embrace it as a sign of our connection and a monument to our loss.
Because these thirteen people who died, though they were ordinary, were also remarkable. They worked with dedication and conviction for causes they believed to be just and meaningful, struggling against physical danger and social contradictions alike. Just as millions of civilians and non-military personnel in this country work everyday the thankless jobs we so often take for granted. Just as the pacifist and the war protester devote themselves, despite difficulty and disapproval, to the cause of justice and freedom more directly than an armed military force ever could. Just as the gunman, Nidal Hasan, dedicated himself all his adult life to the work of comforting and counseling the traumatized and depressed, despite his personal objections to the war, despite the continuing prejudice he suffered because he looked like the enemy and prayed to their god.
For when tragedy lays bare our values and our fears, we come to realize that all people work for the causes they hold dear, and that there is good in every one of us striving towards the light, struggling to share itself. Women and men, rich and poor, white, black, brown, all colors and creeds, not only Americans but people in every corner of the world: we hold in common the deep desire to see good done even in times of hardship, to see justice prevail even in times of uncertainty and fear. Some of us are lucky, our efforts met with praise and honor during life. Some of us, like the thirteen we mourn here today, find honor and praise most poignantly in death, only then the true value of our remarkable humanity shining through the ordinariness of our existence. But others among us are not so lucky, our efforts misguided and ineffectual, to be overshadowed in the end by a single act of violence and desperation.
The men and women whom Hasan counseled and helped during those long years of war will now remember him only as the man who killed, the man who sent fear and suffering shivering through their community, robbing others of life. In one moment of violence, whatever good he may have done has been undone, just as easily as the memories of his victims have been transformed from those of flawed, ordinary human beings, into those of heroes and angels. And so let us mourn too this loss, the loss of a quiet life spent comforting others, which might have continued uninterrupted, and unremarked, except for the tragedy of violence that has brought it abruptly and effectively to an end. For whether or not Hasan ever rises from his hospital bed, the life he had lived is over, not simply extinguished but his past work obliterated. And this, too, is a loss that no one should have to suffer.
For we all eventually face the last darkness and uncertainty of death, whether we have lived as loving and compassionate people dedicated to justice and truth, or as selfish and small-minded individuals at war with ourselves and distrustful of our neighbors. Most of us live in some ambiguous realm in between, with our moments of weakness as well as our passing triumphs, and yet few of us will face the kind of obliteration that an act of desperate and vengeful violence can bring on in one quick moment. So let us work now, as people who have lived through this tragedy, to ensure our own lives aspire to mercy and kindness; let us begin by condemning the actions of this man, but not the man himself, and create from his acts a world in which such violence can claim no more victims.
Let us hold on to our sorrow for just a little longer, so that we may remember. Let us resist a culture that encourages us to forget and turn away and recover all too quickly from grief — let us keep this memory out of respect for those who have suffered and died. And out of gratitude for the life and freedom we hold so precious, which we possess completely and essentially, which cannot be taken away, nor won by force of arms in foreign lands. It is because we value life and goodness that we find ourselves asking, in our sadness, if there was anything we could have done. What could we have done to prevent this tragedy from occurring? What steps could we have taken to recognize the psychological and emotional strain that would eventually lead Hasan to the violent edge of insanity? For it is not enough to dismiss this man as weak or inherently broken, to scoff at his inability to hold up under pressure and blame him for the mechanizations of power and control that left him feeling helpless and trapped, with violence as his only resort. Is this the kind of country we would build with our own hands — a country in which the weak and vulnerable are left to break under the weight of hardship and fear while the strong abandon and mock them, adding rage and revenge to the load they bear?
No, it seems that we must accept some responsibility, too, for Hasan’s murders, and for the suicides becoming every day more common in our military; just as we must accept responsibility for the violence and fear that our military itself perpetuates overseas, and the consequences of guilt repressed and denied with which so many of our soldiers struggle. We are all of us connected in this world, connected in our flaws and failures as well as in our acts of justice and love. And it is clear that we have failed; we have failed the thirteen dead at Fort Hood just as much as we have failed Hasan, just as much as we have failed ourselves and forgotten the ideals for which we seek to live. The time has come to face the consequences of violence in all its forms, regardless of its good intentions or higher aspirations. We cannot build a country, let alone a world, in which the vulnerable suffer silently and the strong live a myth of perpetual victimization.
So in our grief, I ask each of us to live up to the strength and courage we would ascribe to the fallen, and to embody that bravery not through violence and power-posturing, but through gentleness: the gentleness of grief, and the gentleness of forgiveness and understanding. Let us not allow our pain to fuel an anger that seeks only to isolate and punish — let us be better than revenge, let us be stronger than death. Let us be courageous enough to admit to our vulnerabilities and flaws, rather than seeking to bandage our wounds with the language of thinly-veiled self-congratulation or further acts of force. Let us find comfort in connection, instead of in careful isolation; let us find hope and justice in relationship and community, instead of in a false security that builds walls and separates the good from the evil.
Let us find in these thirteen deaths, not a reason to close down around ourselves in fear and pain, but a symbol of our connection, a connection that will express itself in horror as easily as in beauty, in tragedy as well as in hope. And in that symbol, let us find our potential to choose — to choose beauty, to choose love, to choose kindness, courage, gentleness, hope, and life.
“What can we do? he asked me. What right do we have to lecture others when our own efforts seem to be so small and meaningless, our actions so impotent and our intentions always usurped and distorted by systems of violence and fear? And it seemed to me that the answer is, and that it always is: we do what we can. We have to try, we have to allow ourselves that much. Even if our uncertainty shakes us to the soles of our feet, even if our knowledge of the world and its vastness make us feel small and helpless, even if bloated systems of fear and myopic self-interest loom over us, leering and licking their chops — we do what our hearts and minds and hands urge us to do.”
To enter the drawing for a complimentary set of prayer beads and a copy of the Peace of the Three Realms meditation by Ali, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, send your name and mailing address to: Prayer for Peace Give-Away
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