Slaughter, beauty, art, and obligation

In the fall of 1950 I arrived to school upset and angry. My parents had not told me we were at war and had been for months. They had treated me like a child, not bothering to tell me the horrendous news of people killing each other. What could possibly be larger or worse than war? How dare they.

I went immediately to the cloakroom where I asked Rosie, Jerry, David, and Tony if they knew we were at war. They did not. I told them it was with Korea, around the world.

Jerry said, “I’m going to be a soldier and I’ll fight and I’ll kill all the bad men.” He was punching his fists in the air. At that moment I realized he was a little boy with no understanding of what war was, that he didn’t even understand what death was. Existential isolation first hit me in the cloakroom of the second grade.

This memory has returned as people kill each other and allow others to kill. We in the U.S. blithely supply weapons for the killing. Death tolls are rounded to the nearest hundred or thousand and the accounting cannot keep up with reality.

But I am not feeling existential isolation. I, like most of us, feel the suffering that permeates our existential commonality. We live together in a world of blood, screams, decimation, death by weapons, hubris, callousness, arrogant self-justification, death close up, death by remote control, convenient self-delusion, and men who fight wars as though they were video games.*

We look for ways to cope, to put slaughter into a context that gives a modicum of relief. We protest, we give money, we write legislators, and we bombard Facebook. We use activism as an antidote to despair.* (I receive more or less 30 posts, videos, photos from Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel each day.)

This onslaught has brought me to a rare place – writer’s block – something I have seldom if ever experienced. This is my sixth attempt to write in over a week. The block does not come from nothing to say, but from too much to say, and that many brilliant writers and analysts are saying it far better than I could.

So what is my part? I cannot bear not helping, but what have I uniquely to give? And if I have nothing uniquely to add, should I simply wait, breath, cry, and pray in the quiet breathing sort of way that I do? It seems impossible to write blogs that are simply amusing.

An answer of sorts has come – a work in progress certainly – that I have only the personal to give. This feels, in one way, like a travesty, an indulgence, an eating of a fruit tart on the edge of a room with body parts in the middle. Do we eat it looking to the floor, to the corner, or to the middle?

Do I exaggerate? No, it feels that strange.

Am I too in-your-face? Perhaps, but at least I am writing again.

And what grants this writing is that I know I am not alone in the agitated distress of those of us who are witnesses. Because we care, we, too, are injured. We hurt.

I have come to that among the things we can do – in addition to protesting, giving money, writing, and other forms of activism – is to remember, even latch onto, beauty and to fiercely participate in creations that transcend devastation.

To state: This is not a time to shop – an obscenity coming out of materialistic responses to slaughter – but a time to embrace, rediscover, and express our creative “better angels” in order to heal and strengthen ourselves and to hold possibility for those who suffer. This is not a time to whimper.

If humans are both savage and divine, we must “activate” our impulses to create harmony and embrace light. We must not be afraid of the startling and cleansing power of light (ours from inside and that that feels as though it comes from outside of ourselves), and we must not feel it is shallow of us to create art or go to a concert when our friends are being killed. Our job is remain conscious of the suffering of others as we tether that suffering to creations offered to us by others or from us to others.

This is a time to write poetry, to create songs, and to paint. This is a time to listen to poetry, to listen to music, to go to galleries. It is a time to make delicate meals, create labyrinths for your children, carry and distribute chocolates, look deeply into flowers, and to dance. These actions may lift us into tears or laughter, but they will help us heal and they will spread. This, in the hands of a master, produces Guernica. This, in the hands of the rest of us, is a power that can change the world.

My grandson told me that humans are the weirdest animals because we talk and we create things. He turned seven two days ago, he is the age Jerry was when he going to kill the bad men. He is smarter than Jerry was, but I do not want him to know people are killing other people. I, like my parents, like all parents, want to protect the children.

Ah, the children. Ah, the children.

We are savages and we allow savagery, but we are also the vessels that divinity has to work with to bring joy and peace.

An Israeli on my Facebook, one of numerous new “friends,” occasionally posts a photo of an Israeli being arrested for protesting against the destruction of Gaza, but more often he posts incongruent beauty – a curve of a violin, a song, the inlaid decoration of a harpsichord. I have come to understand why. Each posting is a candle of beauty that has been, beauty that is, and beauty that will be.

To “never forget” horror is one thing, but to “always remember” our divinity – our better angels – is imperative. It is the stuff of personal and global salvation. We must take it out of the realm of possibility and into the world of reality. We must create beauty, harmony, acknowledgment, love, and forgiveness that can be touched, felt, heard, and seen. We must remind ourselves and others that transcending is something people do. It came in our package. We weirdest of animals can re-create the world for the better.


* “men playing video games” and “activism as antidote” are credited to Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD, author, and Jungian analyst, who called during the writing of this post.


5 thoughts on “Slaughter, beauty, art, and obligation

  1. Patricia, this post is truly beautiful. Thank you for reminding me of the beauty of this “looking glass” world we live in.

    • Thank you, Jo. Btw, I just hung cranes made by you above my granddaughter’s bed. You are a true peacemaker.

  2. I’m glad you are writing again. I’m still in the activism stage: petitions, e-mail, posting to FB, Twitter. I have one young man who is writing from Gaza wanting to get a visa to the US and one friend doing mental health work in the West Bank and Jerusalem whose American passport has expired and she is desperate to come back to the US-Florida before she loses her own sanity. I’m writing to my congress people about the Rafah UN school hit last Sunday because The Rebuilding Alliance and the Rachel Corrie Foundation are asking us to ask for No Fire Zones around the UN Schools. They know the social worker at the Rafah UN school as he is one of the families that Rachel Corrie died trying to protect his home. Maurice Jacobsen, documentarian, is staying in our basement working on his Art Exhibit for Grand Rapids Art Prize 2014, starts Sept 24-Oct 12th, titled: “We All Live In Gaza.” He keeps running into roadblocks trying to design the exhibit in the space provided at the Fountain Street Church. They are now requesting sound proofing which is reasonable except that the cost of doing so adds more money to the project. And when I think of the noise of war on top on children’s heads somehow it seems unjust that he sound proof it rather than interrupt the world with it. After reading you blog about not wanting your grandson, 7, to know about people killing people, I’m feeling guilty because my daughter told me that one of my twin grandsons, 8, the sensitive one, couldn’t sleep thinking about what Gramma had said about children dying in Gaza. I’m thinking that life shouldn’t go on in America while the media reports children dying and our Congress passes one last bill before it leaves for vacation to resupply Israel with more weapons. I can’t stand it that our President says first that Israel has a right to defend itself and second that they have to be more careful about killing civilians! Outrageous-why not the other way around? Israel has to stop bombing Gaza as it is killing children and Israel needs to find a more careful way of defending itself, possibly a long term solution like treating the Palestinians as human beings and lifting the blockade and the occupation? Thanks for your blog, it inspires me to write and think.

    • Mares, you are a powerhouse for justice and healing. I am so grateful for you.

  3. ““The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”
    ― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

    To be remembered, especially for those of us who can, enjoy the gift of beauty, art, and laughter in this time of world turmoil. I believe that heaven cannot battle hell without working, struggling, triumphing to do so. The challenge for balance exists within each of us. It may not be easy, but it must be done.

    My response to your, as usual, lovely gut wrenching blog.

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