If Australia isn't a distinctive place that welcomes the newcomer as 'The People of Australia', it will be lost—not that the culture we have now will be inundated by others, but there will be a more serious loss of soul from lack of cohesion. It will be the loss of a shared sense of placeRead More
I woke Tuesday morning to the news that the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok had been bombed; this is particularly poignant for me as I was at that shrine a week before to the day. I'm going to take care not to say 'relevant' for me as, frankly, other than the shared humanity I have with the victims, I am not really connected to the incident. I think there can be a bit of 'adventure hubris' in saying too eagerly, 'yeah, I was right there man…well, a week before but, hey, close call wasn't it?'
I do find it ironic that I was also in Madrid at one of the train stations that was bombed about a week prior; in both instances I had the thought that these places seemed relatively safe. I continually (and this is perhaps more prevalent with American friends) hear comments about how unsafe the world is now—that we could be attacked 'anywhere and everywhere'. However, the chances of 'us' experiencing a terrorist incident are vanishingly small; I've been in some pretty dodgy places yet my most dangerous moment came on an open stretch of road in rural Maryland (in an accident with a statistically impossible chance of survival).
There is something askew with both the sense of safety and danger when people simultaneously assume that the real risks are on the battlefield or 'over there' in Syria, Iraq or South Sudan but, also, 'they' are coming to get us here in our local neighbourhood. Yes, both/and, but perhaps not at the extremes imagined. That's no consolation to the people living in the midst of war or the families of those killed in attacks; but I personally can't live my life in constant heightened awareness of danger. I also don't make flippant assumptions about risks (either in the aforementioned dodgy places or walking home in my quiet suburb at night).
This is the psychology of terrorism; you don't have to acquire an arsenal of nuclear bombs or vast armies. All that needs doing is to subtly shift people's assumptions about safety and risk. Once you've done that, you have control over their actions and life decisions. This shift can be about one's own city or some distant place; I was reminded yesterday about a conversation I had after returning to Philadelphia from the DR Congo, "Didn't you feel really…unsafe?" Yes, The DRC is dangerous, but I felt no more unsafe than I did in Philly where I, almost every night, heard gunshots down the street. That doesn't mean I must stop engaging with life in my neighbourhood or the world.
This comes down to something I've been speaking with a friend with over the past weeks; she does work in dangerous situations involving human trafficking and the darkness of the world. But, she said it's more dangerous to ride a motor scooter in traffic in Thailand (after experiencing this firsthand…yes). If you are doing what you are destined to do; then what greater safety is there? Everything must happen as it must. There is an old saying about 'sitting in the Heart of God'; that's not a place of fear. It may be a place of dangers and risks; but dangers and risks are everywhere—and, in a sense, nowhere in particular. I should think it's more important to encounter one's full purpose in life and let that life unfold as it may (but do wear a helmet).
I’ve written a page in my notebook some time ago; it’s on my mind this morning as I sit awake, jet-lagged, in a Dallas airport hotel at two in the morning:
It seems to me that, deep in the kernel of ‘organised religion’ that this is the crux of conflict; it’s not that people have faith and disagree over this in general, it’s that people become obsessed with the power of their proclaimed god and, by extension, their own power. When that power is defamed or threatened, there is a vigorous response (all involving some kind of spiritual or physical violence to either oneself or the other). When that power remains unchecked, there is hubris and the entitlements of power.
When one’s god is beyond all question of power and the norms of reality and you are part of or under the charge of that god, there is always the risk that you extend yourself beyond what you, as an individual, have any warrant to do. This can, of course, lead to great creative beauty and humanity; however, the more trodden path (or at least the more currently visible one) spans the range from everyday pettiness to violent martyrdom. It is the same hierarchal framework of war that we’ve been living under since the first king was set up over a given square of land (and there is a story in the Bible where God warns about the nature of kings). We’ve put the sceptre and sword in god’s hand and look for the opportunity of blood.
Last night, I continued a conversation with a friend begun after Easter weekend. We had spoken about the continuing process in us of learning to live in this life; the difficulties of learning hard lessons and having death and resurrection as we go. I wrote to her,
We cannot make death the focus of god in our lives (either calling upon the vengeful god to support us in our violence to others or pleading with the merciful almighty god who will save us in the end). I want to listen for the quiet diminished god who is there in the much more difficult process of life and resurrection; the god who is close as the slow process of growth comes to bear or my wounds are healing cell by cell. That is the god who is everywhere regardless of these confusions of creed and conflict. I don’t wish for a more almighty god of power and sudden intervention; that’s not going to bring healing. I wish for a diminished god working slowly in this quiet Cosmos; that may be an idealist’s dream but I would rather close my eyes to dream on this than shut them in fear when the terrors come.
There is much discussion about the need for better clarity and connection in 'The World'. I'm sure that whatever future we have together will require more understanding and cohesion; however, I wonder, again, if we so much lack the ability to communicate or we have simply lost the capacity to be silent. On the news last night, after the arrests of several suspected terrorists in Belgium, an imam in the town they were from said, "I think, unfortunately, much of the radicalisation is taking place online now; it's certainly not happening here in the mosque." The problem may not be that people are isolated it's that they are too filled with an infected language—and the spirit can only bear so much filling before it overflows into violence.
We've evolved in sparse small quiet groups. Now we are overwhelmed with sound. I've noted that some of the most socially desperate places I've been are also the most noisy—that the actual physical environment tends toward an unrelenting wash of sound (hard surfaces, crowded living and working spaces, etc.). This is not insignificant; I think it's actually a substantive issue. If you live in a place where, even to be heard, you have to constantly shout and strain your voice, this will form your perspective on how you interact with others. It will have some bearing on every kind of social interaction. Also those who are quiet won't be heard; it's only the loudest voices that can speak over the din. This is, metaphorically and physically, where much of the ideology of violence springs from—obviously not all; that's too much of a generalisation. However, I'm extending my generalisation into the online connections that seem to feed this phenomenon of radicalisation. People are caught up in little hard rooms with too much reverberation and it's driving them mad.
I wonder if these self-styled 'martyrs' are, instead of glory and acclaim through their own death and the death of others, deep down only trying to find a place of silence? That they, in their physical and spiritual lives, are so overwhelmed with the noise that they are driven to silence it all and would, ultimately, silence everyone. We continually hear from the families of 'good boys' who have 'suddenly and without warning' killed dozens of people that 'we never saw it coming; he was such a quiet young man.' Well, yes, he might have been a quiet young man beaten down with the noise of his school, his city, his broken society and then by the screaming preachers of hate he found online. If he was boisterous and outgoing, he might of found some outlet to vent his frustrations; he may have thought he could find work or interact with people different from himself (there is another discussion here about the loss of traditional shepherds and rights of passage for young men). But if one is in a world with no silence and no retreat, then that is going to break people eventually. Unfortunately, that brokenness, for some, leads to what we see in the evening news. That gets amplified, from news to reaction, reaction to further violence, violence to the sounds of war.
I've begun a new gallery in the photography section; it's, for the moment, all stills from our past two Teachers Federation film productions for cinema and television ads. I was the on-site client representative and (perhaps more usefully) the de facto stills photographer. See the whole gallery here.
I've just yesterday flown back to Sydney from a holiday in the States; as I left the country, the story of the attacks in Paris were unfolding and unfinished. Every news channel in the hotel displayed a barrage of information—'experts' spoke of the social situation in France, issues over immigration and inculturation, economic pressures among migrants, dissatisfaction over political reforms, involvement of the French military in North Africa, the 'War on Terror', various riots in The Republic over the past years, the history of Colonial power, religions intolerance, religious tolerance, freedom of expression, temperance of that expression, a new device that can hold any smart phone in your car's air vent, the upcoming Super Bowl, how the French government should respond, what mistakes were made by French Intelligence, the inevitable surveillance state, and so on.
Then, I flew for fourteen hours from Los Angeles to Sydney and all that fell silent. Most international flights are, for now, still free of any internet or broadcast news incursion. You've only your own reflections on current events to mull over (my 'entertainment display' was non-functional so I also did not have the selection of films to peruse either).
All these diverse and discordant voices—everyone has some opinion. Some are willing to voice them; some turn to violent action. How can I comprehend the situation of someone whose life is so different—who has a whole set of values and beliefs that are either many degrees separated or outright antithetical to mine? It takes significant dialogue (and, of course, a willingness to engage in that for both parties). But what, in the human experience of our engagement with one another, is the constant? All discussions and interactions involve variables; some of the elements can be reconciled but the equations seem to be too dynamic in the moments of conflict and confusion. What is the static constant that we all share no matter our culture, history or faith? It's silence; we are forgetting how to respect the silence of our togetherness and risk losing the only thing that we can always hold in common.
I know that the news is necessary; but I wish, for a given event, there could be an embargo for some time—that the first response, in the face of tragedy, would be silence and time to reflect. The immediate impulse to find blame, identify the early childhood traumas of the perpetrators, or trace the path of money and weapons is not, primarily, the issue at hand. These events all spring from our inability to hold a balanced space together; there is a rupture in society that tears right down through individuals because they can't find a way to hold life on common terms.
We recognise, after the fact, the necessity of silence; in memorials, in the streets, in Parliaments, there is 'a moment of silence' held by all, no matter what their political bent or religion. We need to find a way to hold silence together beforehand; we need to find these ruptured men and women in their time of injured vulnerability and learn to be silent together; to hold the quiet that leads to a discussion. What they are receiving, instead, is that onslaught of noise and rage from every quarter that drives them into further despair. If every space of mind and spirit is filled with the clamour of so many competing ideologies, there will be no room left for the common silence. What remains for the catalyst of peace? We'll face a future of desperate commentators trying to unquietly uncover why?
I'm trying to bring some income (and variety) into the studio at work during idle times; this week, I recorded the Guardian Australia culture podcast. I had four journalists sitting round a table talking about the recent Melbourne festival. It was also great to observe Miles Martignoni in action; he's an experienced radio producer who calmly guided the process and then edited the material into an informative finished piece. Have a listen at this link or subscribe on iTunes here.
I'm reading through old journals again; I wrote this in 1996 after holding a rare manuscript book from 1280. How did ancient scholars carry these words that were written and handed down so carefully over time?
The Mystic to his Bride.
Her subtle voice returns,
Fixed into his eyes
As he in her remains.
He lifts her;
A gentle touch
Upon the ribs along her spine.
Her skin–still taught,
Though years of holding
Have formed wrinkles in her folds.
His time all spent
Beside her now.
His hands brush across her face.
He sees no age,
Yet, he stoops closer.
In visions, he carries her,
As she does him.
His life upon her words.
And from their joining,
Two made one,
Come volumes yet unborn.