A week after I wrote this post , 130 people died in attacks in Paris. The day before, 39 died and 243 were injured in a suicide bombing in Beirut.
It is shocking, but these events are hardly unique. In just this year alone, countless attacks have been made on civilians and students in Egypt and Kenya and Syria and England and the US.
Sometimes it’s about religion or politics, but not always. Sometimes – maybe always – it’s about despair.
Two days after the Paris attacks, my peaceful meditation community was faced with verbal abuse and insults hurled at us from protesters on the sidewalk outside our building.
The protesters were Christian. And they told us all to burn in hell.
As I searched their faces, I struggled to comprehend what was driving this behavior. They were not trying to save anyone’s souls or proselytize for a religious belief. They were angry and hurting. Their despair had twisted a hopeful message into a hateful one.
Despair brings a deadly edge to conflict. It strips away the need to argue, to fight for change. It divests one of attachment to honor or justice. Despair ignores the rules and doesn’t care about collateral damage.
Because of the unrelenting nature of despair, and the pain it brings, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that people caught in the grips of it just want a way out.
Channel that empty hopelessness through an ideology of hatred and suddenly it’s not so hard to imagine someone walking into a crowded bar or school or market and simply letting that despair burn itself out in a hail of bullets or the explosion of a suicide vest in the vain hope that killing someone else will help to still the pain consuming them.
It’s easy to try to categorize someone who would do something like this. To simply call them crazy or a terrorist and let that be the end of it. But doing that means succumbing to our own despair. It means giving up on whole religions or nations (or people who suffer from mental illness) labeling them all as the other and refusing to see their humanity.
Despair that leads us to ignore a child in need is just as devastating to our souls as the despair that comes from the aftermath of an attack.
Despair is a feeling that I know well. In the aftermath of last weekend, I was ready to be done with all religion, shamed especially by people of my own faith committing such despicable acts. I was ready to give up on it all.
There is a way out of despair though. It takes time. It takes being present to what is and not simply to what isn’t. It takes a steadfast commitment to look at people as people, not The Other. To know that someone else on the other side of a religious or political divide – or on the other side of the world – faces the same day to day struggles that you do and has many of the same wishes you do.
To be safe.
To be healthy.
To be happy.
To be a useful member of a community.
And to know that the people they love are also safe, healthy and happy.
It’s not so simple. We don’t always get it right. But rooting out despair wherever it grows in our hearts and our communities is vital. It begins with helping one person. Knowing that improvement can happen, that change is possible, is an effective antidote to despair and unlocks us from the prisons of fear and anger.
If we’re willing and courageous enough to be free.
All pictures taken by me, in and around Jerusalem earlier this month.