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In a 2015 article published in The Nation, author Toni Morrison writes that “in times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent.”
She goes on to say,
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”
Her words tap into some deep and buried thing in me. I haven’t been able to find the words for much of the heartbreak, shock, and rage that’s been metastasizing in my soul since a decades-long conflict came to a head when Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded by declaring war. Over the last 20 days, thousands of people have been killed, and an estimated 40% of them are children.1
(I cannot type these words without weeping.)
I’m sitting at my dining table, the rough wood worn soft where I place my mug, steam rising to meet cold morning air as I turn the heat up a notch or two. Opening my phone to the news, my eyes skim headlines, words like war and justice blinking back at me. I close the app and open Instagram. Posts slide under my thumbs with lines about genocide and entire family lines being wiped from the planet in one fell swoop, one burst of bomb and shrapnel. I turn off my phone.
(I cannot type these words without heaving.)
My lungs ache and I find that I have to remind myself to take a breath. I inhale deeply and think of the countless people still trapped under the wreckage of their bombed-out homes and hospitals, gasping for oxygen as loved ones search, never ceasing to call out their names, never ceasing to hope.
I wipe my tears and tell myself I need to eat something if only to stop my anxiety-ridden body from shaking. I make a sandwich and taste nothing. With each bite, I think of the closed borders at the edge of Gaza and the severely limited aid trucks full of food and supplies just sitting there, on the other side of the need.
I read that Amnesty International has declared there is damning evidence of war crimes as Israeli attacks wipe out entire families in Gaza.2 I look up from my laptop and watch my children bounce a balloon over the grass as those words bounce inside my skull. I clench my jaw and think of the children who are crouched under their beds right now, terrified and waiting to see if the next bomb is aimed at them.
I stand on the sidewalk and am suddenly awe-struck as magenta leaves dangle bright against the Autumn sunset. I try to stay with the beauty but my mind drifts to skylines bright red as bombs blaze homes and hospitals against night air. And I think: we are not made for this.
Humanity is not made for this. That is why we can be 6700 miles away from the bloodshed and still we cannot bear it. That is why we stop eating and forget to breathe. Left without relief, our overwhelmed nervous systems signal to shut down and disengage from bearing witness to the horror. So deeply hellacious that the mere secondary encounter with it leads us into depression and freeze response.
Palestinian journalist Jenan Matari recently shared a brave and heartbreaking video in which she said that for indigenous communities, it is all connected. It doesn’t matter if members are halfway around the world, when one hurts, they all hurt. (I’m paraphrasing and highly recommend you watch her video here.)
Meanwhile, industries and politicians alike are pushing us to move on. Distractions are abundant and encouraged. I understand the temptation to look away and detach. I get wanting to pretend life is back to normal. I barely have the heart to tell you this, and yet — that “normal” you’re searching for is gone forever. There is before October 7th, 2023 and there is after.
Our bodies know this, and they are begging us to pay attention. Our bodies, deep and sentient, cannot help but empathize with the oppressed. This is the way of survival, built into our veins from the beginning, like root systems connected to all of life. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. These ancestral threads tether us to one another, and they are humming within every second of the genocide that’s unfolding before our eyes.
Empathy is not a curse. Empathy is what will save us. Not turning away is what moves us to action. Holding space for the grief of those we don’t know is what connects us.
We were not made for this, but we can make from this. The resolve in me now is one of empathetic grief and inevitable change. As far as I can help it, I will not become desensitized. I will channel Dylan Thomas and rage, rage, rage into the dying of the light. We’ve been complacent. I’ve been complacent. I grew up in the public school system, learning that the United States of America was the altruistic hero of the globe, liberating suffering people and installing democracies of peace and abundance. America was only ever good. I pledged allegiance to a flag every morning, never once asking myself why or if I truly wanted to align with the indoctrination being shoved down my throat. I grew up. Went to college. Married. Entered the workforce. All right in step with Capitalism and the promise of the American Dream.
I should have known nothing is that simple. The ways I’ve unwittingly contributed to the problem are astounding. I was blissfully unaware, but that is no longer the case. From now on, my eyes will open wider. I know there is still so much to learn, but this is a new line in the dirt, its edges still freshly scratched with wet earth.
We can make something new, we can take the grief and hold space and lament, we can rage, and we can smash tired and ignorant narratives. In place of guns and war, we can hold flowers and write a more safe and inclusive story. We can link arms and create poetry and music and art. We can organize and march and educate ourselves and listen and speak up and refuse to give into complacency. Rejecting the false us-against-them myth takes many forms. Even breathing is an act of creative defiance. Every inhale and exhale is a symbiotic partnership with the earth, with plants and trees, a pastoral exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Our rebellion is an irresistible, intersectional alignment with life.
This anguish is universal and bearing witness to the violence is excruciating. And yet — we will bear it. We will stay with. By the time this post is live, the death toll will have risen even higher. Every number is a person. A person who had a birthday, a nickname, who shared an inside joke and harbored memories of tender moments and dreams and hopes. And with every breath, we are standing in the gap between hatred and love. All of it matters. All of it is so dearly human it makes my bones ache. We must resist the normalization and justification of genocide. Stay sensitized.
To the victims of this violence — I’m with you.
NPR | Death Toll In Gaza Approaches 7,000 As Aid Groups Raise Alarm About Fuel | World Oct 26, 2023