Last night, a week or so after MH17 was downed, I went to bed after editing some photos in which I was isolating a dance figure onto a black background, square-by-square of black paint, and pixel-by-pixel. As I lay alone in my bed, I felt as if grey, spongy blocks of silence were surrounding me in the same way, to the point where I thought I might scream or throw up. Is this madness? No.
Earlier in the week, rather than abstaining from visual media portrayals of current events as I had been doing, I instinctively knew when something momentous was happening, just as I had when Ronald Regan had been shot, and the tsunami in Japan began hitting the shores. So, I turned on CNN. Another Malaysian plane down, but this time shot down by a missile, as easy and innocent a prey as a migrating bird in flight. For days, I watched as the world exploded in first one place, then another, faces of horror and grief mixed with those of laughing ghouls, and blank eyed, inhuman demi-gods. Chants of, “Uncivilized!” were met with silence, and chants of, “Monsters!” were met with more guns, rubble and more dead.
Now, I am almost immobile, sickened, and awash with tragedy after tragedy, “Why?” after, “Why?” keep piling up on one another, just as today’s body bag count keeps rising. I am no longer in a place where I can feel that my prayers could alleviate any one’s pain, as I too am submerged, and in despair.
Strangely enough, I find solace in the controversial writings of Chris Hedges in his little-known book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges states that the world has been free of war of some kind of war for only 150 days throughout human history, so that from the widest perspective possible and without moral judgment, war must serve a purpose.
As a war correspondent for many years, he was immersed in the chaos and carnage of tribal violence, genocide and religious zealotry. And while he certainly saw depravity and brutality, he also saw people rising, or being driven to a higher form of them selves. Sacrifice, heroism, compassion, or valor – some of the virtues we hold as most human, sprang from the blood soaked fields and streets of the last decades’ battles. Not everyone survives in-tact, some become “cannibals” of various kinds. Strengths and virtues that arise evolved on the anvils of man-made Hell. But arise they do.
In our sanitized, urban or suburban lives, little calls upon most of us to grow our souls. Hedges reflects that these powerful experiences shared with others become the glue of comradeship between fighters, journalists and first responders of all kinds. And yet, like many, he found that he too had become over-run by the numbing of sensibilities that is required to survive under the gun, on hyper-alert, in fear. He retired as a war correspondent, not-unscathed, and now reports on the wars without guns that are taking place in his own country, America.
I firmly believe that little is without purpose in this world, and beyond. I choose to call it a Divine Pattern, and I have no pretensions as to comprehending it all. But like all other humans, I am driven to find meaning in what I see and experience. For me, that means turning off the flow of misery depicted on TV, and taking time for contemplation, for prayer, for quiet, and for a response through making art.
While I am not in a position of forgiveness for all the combatants of this week, I am also not able to rage. I weep for all the participants, their families, and for the rest of us who cannot escape the waves of grief that spread like sonar waves around our planet.
So when I sat transfixed, watching the Dutch citizens honor the slow motion arrival of the first coffins from the Ukraine, I felt my connection to the event and people I had never met. When any tragedy occurs, especially a mass tragedy, the impact ripples in an almost limitless spiral:
to those who were also injured, but didn’t die
to those who witnessed the tragedy
to those parents who have lost a child
to those who have lost a family member
to those who have lost a loved one, friend, neighbor or fellow…
to those who know one of the above
to the first responders
to the secondary responders, those who work to heal in the aftermath
to those in similar situations
to those who might be in similar situations, or who know they will be
to those who share similar status, beliefs or religion
to those of the same color, culture or caste
and so the circles widen as surely as a rings around a petal disturbs the surface of the sea.
This is why we have ceremony. Ceremony not only brings what is implicit, and held deep within and turns it into something explicit, but it makes the unimaginable more tolerable by containing it, by creating a gathering of others experiencing the same loss, by giving language to screams, silent and otherwise. Grief is something that is not healed by time, or platitudes, but only by traversing the scarred remnants of one’s heart so as to get through the phenomena. Ceremonies, especially personally created ones, create a vehicle for the process of transforming pain into a healing, for one’s self, family, community and beyond. And, thereby create a human community forged through tears.
I will always feel closer and grateful to the people of the Netherlands for doing what they felt compelled to do as the first procession of hearses carrying the bodies of the downed arrived in Hilversum: stop their car, or interrupt their routine, to silently recognize the innocent people who had needlessly died in a horrific, unimaginable and tragic manner. They stood vigil for me, they threw petals in the path of the hearses for me, they silently applauded and lit candles for us all. Someone said, “We fight because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Ritual and ceremony help us to remember our human bond, hold hands even across continents, and move again through grief and into the acts of mourning.