I've been thinking a lot about the unrelenting wave of violence suffered by black people in America. The onslaught of the lost has shamefully numbed me. I turn my eyes to each new headline and reach into the well for outrage at the injustice only to come up empty.
But people are in pain, a pain that's been built, fortified, and justified, brick by injuring brick, for all of our flawed nation's history. And the storm of violence shows no signs of breaking.
We have to turn towards the pain and the violence if there's any hope for us.
For the pain, the first thing I can say is that it's not my own. This post from Jedidiah Jenkins navigates to what I think is an important conclusion:
I don’t know what to say or do. But I am here. I cannot know what it is like to be you. But I can listen and I can be a better friend. And I should make sacrifices. I love you. And I’m sorry for my frightened selfishness. For my blindness, at first unconscious, and then chosen.
Even if I don't know you, I am here and I love you. If there is any balm in the insignificant compassion I can offer, it is yours.
Even with the pain, which must be recognized, there's also the violence. In thinking about it, I've returned to a powerful documentary I watched last summer called The Act of Killing, which deals with the killings in Indonesia from 1965-66.
The documentary takes you to some of the darkest corners of the human experience. In a conversation with Sam Harris, the documentary's director, Joshua Oppenheimer, offers a valuable reflection at the 42 minute mark:
Recognizing that virtually every act of evil in our history has been perpetrated by human beings like us, it's uncomfortable because it means that we might, if we lived in other situations, do the same thing. If we grew up in any of these perpetrators' families in 1950s Indonesia, come 1965, we might make the same decision. We would hope that we wouldn't, but most of us are very lucky never to have to find that out. And that's uncomfortable.
Oppenheimer continues, digging a little deeper:
But if you overcome that, you quickly realize that recognizing that every perpetrator is human with very few exceptions and shares the same human morality is the only hopeful response. Because if there's just monsters among us then we either have to surrender ourselves to this kind of thing happening again and again and again, in a kind of despair, or we have to isolate the monsters and somehow neutralize them. And then, how do we stop ourselves from becoming the monsters?
Answering his own question:
Whereas if we can build societies in which we foster the widest possible empathy and where we also foster doubt, where we teach children to doubt what authority tells them so that it's more difficult to incite people to join groups that would betray their individual morality, then we ought to be able to build societies where this kind of unimaginable violence truly becomes unimaginable, where it becomes impossible.
Oppenheimer's reflection points us to at least one part of how we can navigate our way out of the violence. We have to recognize the humanity in the perpetrators. At the same time, we have to foster doubt, gut-wrenching, soul-searching doubt. And we have to be wary of tribal politics, for it is tribal politics that led to the systems that meter out violence. We have to build and rebuild a society from first principles that reflect the good in us. I believe that's possible. In light of the alternative, I have to believe that it is possible.
I don't have answers. I mostly have questions. I am ready to learn and to change my mind if need be. But I want to join the conversation, because not doing so isn't a viable option anymore.