Yesterday in the late afternoon, a colleague appeared in the doorway of my office declaring how stressed she was because she'd been listening to the news, and she couldn't figure out what was really going on in Gaza and it was driving her crazy.
I suggested she simply turn off the news; after all, even if she knew the news, there's not much she can do.
She shook her head vehemently. "You just don't understand. I have friends and family there. I can't just disconnect."
I suggested that there was still nothing she could do, so why get stressed? But if she really needed news, why not write to her friends and family? Why not call or send an e-mail to find out if they're O.K.?
She went on to say something about a speech that an Israeli leader had given at noon and why is there no coverage of it here?
I thought about saying something snarky about all the speeches given and how little time is devoted to any of them; we don't even hear about our own leaders, so why would we hear about other world leaders? I suggested that she read international papers online if she wanted a larger perspective. But honestly, I suspect she'll find the same situation there: so little space for so many world events.
Then the conversation got very strange. She asked me if I'd read Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America. I had, long ago. Like most books I read, the details have not stuck with me. She talked about the impact that book had made, that she had underlined and made notes on every page, and what if there was nowhere to go, no country that would take them in, what if Israel did not exist?
Did I mention that she's Jewish?
I pointed out that Israel does exist, and she gave me this cocked eyebrow look that suggests that I'm 8 years old and don't really understand foreign policy. And then a student showed up who needed help, and the conversation ended.
But I haven't stopped thinking about it.
I've thought about it from the angle of why we pay attention to world crises and let them drive us crazy. I've thought about it from the angle of why some political situations seem personal and why others don't. Always the good English major, I've thought about it from the angle of the books that affect us so deeply.
For me, it might be Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a book which shows how quickly a country can be taken over by militants and fundamentalists and how grim life would become for so many. I thought of a friend from college years who told me that I badgered her into reading that book, and it changed her views on abortion. I have no memory of badgering, but I suspect that she wasn't the only one I badgered.
I read the book again in 2002, when I assigned it for a class. I remember being amazed at how relevant it seemed. Of course, it should. When Atwood wrote it in the mid-80's, she said that she didn't include any details that weren't actually happening to women somewhere in the world. I can't imagine that the situation for women has improved worldwide since the time of the book's publication.
I thought about current issues of justice and oppression. Once, I spent a lot of time in outrage. I was younger then.
I haven't spent the past month thinking about the violence flaring in Gaza, like my colleague has. But I have spent time thinking about all those children fleeing violence in Central America. In all the talk about this crisis, there's been surprisingly little discussion of U.S. foreign policy and its impact on the current situation in Central America. I would call these children refugees.
Once, I would have gotten angry. I would have indulged in righteous indignation about this Congress which seems so reluctant to take action of any kind. Don't get me wrong: I still write letters to those in Congress who represent my district. I still give money to groups like Lutheran World Relief who help refugees. I pray. But I'm not going to indulge in rage. The human body isn't designed for this stress of constant outrage.
I think of my colleague's religious beliefs. Would I behave differently if Lutherans were at risk? I hope not. I hope that my compassion and my yearning for a better world include everyone, regardless of religious belief. Would I behave/believe differently if Lutherans had been historically a target of hate groups through the centuries? I don't know. I do know that many Lutherans were slaughtered by Nazis, but I also understand that it's not the same.
I've spent an hour thinking about how to conclude this post. I've spent longer wondering if my lack of rage indicates a withdrawal from the world. My 19 year old self might say yes. My current self knows that rage takes energy that might be better directed--at activities that might actually make a difference.
And tamping down our rage might mean we live longer to continue battling for justice in more effective ways.
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