I woke up this morning to discover that last night, whilst I enjoyed a quiet evening at home, at least 120 of my fellow humans were killed in terrorist attacks across Paris. No doubt, by the end of the day, the death toll will be even higher.
A myriad of emotions swirl around inside me. I feel shocked and angry at the loss of so many innocent lives. I feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the attack and incredulous that it has even happened. I feel confused about the attackers’ motives and feel a strong desire to understand what it is that drives human beings to commit such heinous crimes against one another.
I think of my brother who was working in Pairs until yesterday. I also think of friends I have in Paris and of the thousands of strangers who call the city their home. And then I feel guilty because just a few months ago, when 500 people died when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean as they fled war and dictatorships in search of a better life in Europe, I felt similar emotions but I didn’t put pen to paper and write about it.
Most of all though, I feel a deep sadness and what I can only describe as despair at the world we live in.
My temptation is to take a deep breath and go back to what I was doing. To the housework or the breakfast or (I wish) back to bed. But a question goes over and over in my head. It’s the question my cousin and fellow mamma Sophie posed on Facebook this morning and it’s been occupying my thoughts ever since: “What kind of a world are we bringing our children into?”
It feels uncomfortable to sit with this question because the only answers that come are full of negativity and darkness and sadness and sorrow. But it is an important question and one we must grapple with if we are to honour the people whose lives have been lost – in this tragedy and in others passed and still to come. This, after all, is our reality. Of course, atrocities like the one that took place last night are not the whole picture. There is joy and lightness and beauty and connection too. But surely by choosing to shy away and forsake the darkness, we serve only to push it into the shadows from where it is free to expand and intensify its reach? So whilst the emotions it brings up are not easy to navigate, it seems to me that taking the time to feel the pain in the world is a necessary part of the healing and in fact, if we ignore it we run the risk of experiencing further suffering.
One of the things I’ve been conscious of as I guide Zephyr on his way is my response to how he expresses his feelings, whether they be positive or, seemingly, negative. I think there is a tendency in our culture, particularly in Britain, to brush aside feelings, especially if they appear negative or make others uncomfortable. As a nation we are well known for being reserved and although it seems to have shifted in modern times, the British stiff upper lip and stoic outlook is a cultural trait that continues to inform our behaviours. And I don’t think this is necessarily good. So many relationships, between lovers, family members, friends and work colleagues falter or become enmeshed in conflict because people are unable, or simple don’t know how, to express their feelings. In terms of interacting with children, this ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to feelings often translates into the squashing down of particular feelings or the overuse of distraction tactics or for a child simply to be told “it’s not that bad” (when clearly they feel it is). More often that not, parents do or say these things automatically, without thinking (I know I have) and if there is a motivation it’s either through a desire to spare the child the intensity of the ‘bad’ feeling or else to spare other people (most notably strangers in a supermarket) from witnessing the child’s outward expression of his/her feelings.
In my own parenting, I try to be mindful of the way in which I respond to Zephyr’s feelings. I am careful to acknowledge how he’s feeling and give him the words to describe certain emotions in the hope that he will learn to connect with how he feels and be able to express his feelings rather than push them aside.
And so, as I contemplate the events of last night and feel into the shock, the incredulity, the sadness, I am faced with my own despair at it all. And I am reminded that feeling, really feeling, is good. The despair I feel comes ultimately from a place of compassion and empathy, of recognising others’ humanity and of ‘standing with Paris’. To honour and own the pain we feel for the world is a normal and natural human response. It is not a weakness, as some would have it. Rather it is a strength and a sign of emotional maturity.
I am glad Sophie posed the question and that people are expressing their own sadness and despair in response. Because although letting these feelings move through us, instead of exhausting ourselves by keeping them at a distance, can feel overwhelming, it’s a whole lot better than the alternative: keeping it all inside and feeling isolated, insignificant and powerless as a result. By reflecting on Paris, by attempting to connect in our own ways with the trauma so many are experiencing and by sharing our feelings as they come up, we realise we are not alone and can start to move out of our sense of powerlessness.
Not only that but by connecting with our feelings on these matters of grave significance, we are allowing emotions that may have lain dormant to come to the surface. No matter how difficult, these feelings and emotions help us to come alive and as we do, we begin to stir up our passions and imagine our visions for the future we wish for our children.
And when we do, what emerges is powerful. Action borne both of passion and of shared human connection, of solidarity with one another, is infused with a strength of purpose and depth of commitment that is hard to replicate. We’ve only to look back through history to see how human beings coming together to work towards a shared goal can achieve unfathomable things.
And that is where hope comes in. Hope can come out of despair. Even when things seem impossible, hope can never be taken away from us. We can’t necessarily choose what happens to us but we can choose the way in which we respond. And we can choose to have hope.
Today is undoubtedly a day for quiet reflection and solidarity with our Parisian brothers and sisters – and for all others suffering in the world. But when today is over, and when the shock has dissipated and the media fanfare has died down, my hope is that rather than shy away from the difficult feelings, papering over them to go back to our everyday lives, we can be brave enough to face up to our reality and to really feel the pain and despair it evokes.
Because, this is not the end of the story. There is a quiet but immeasurable strength that comes from recognising and connecting with our shared humanity, from being open to the difficult feelings this provokes and from following the passions that inspire us to action. I firmly believe that meaningful change – the kind we desperately need to set us back onto a positive and sustainable path – will come from this place of strength in vulnerability. With this in mind, I intend to embrace it and I hope you will too.
For further thoughts and reflection on reconnecting to the pain in the world, take a look at Joanna Macy’s ‘The Work that Reconnects’