Letter from the Road #17

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


A Gesture


The feelings generated in us by this war are not easy to hold. For months so many of us worked to stop the war from happening, feeling a great communal determination and newfound solidarity, at the same time feeling dread of the imminent violence, and anxiety for the long-term hatreds it will feed. And then all at once it was as if we slipped off a muddy river bank, down into the lethal reality of war. We felt waves of feelings then: anger, shock, disappointment with ourselves, and as if something precious to us had died, like the country we believed in or our faith in the moral progress of history.

Now the days of war keep turning like the pages of a newspaper. Yesterday’s images are superseded by today’s. First we watch the Baghdad night flashing with explosions and feel agony for whoever is caught underneath it, these feelings mixed with an uncomfortable fascination at the display of power. Then we watch the pictures of somebody’s mother weeping over a contorted body in the rubble, and the armless child with his new stumps wrapped in white gauze, and the blood seeping from beneath some peasant’s body lying by the side of a road. We shake our heads, feeling an old sorrow familiar to our species. We turn the page. Now we watch statues falling and people cheering, and feel relieved that maybe Saddam is history and the worst of the violence is over. Pro-war patriots gloat at us, and we feel like strangers in a strange land, unable to speak because no one is listening.

Our feelings are a mix of political convictions and raw human empathy. We can’t forget the thousands of bloodied victims lying in dirty hospital rooms, while at the same time we hope for the end of the Iraqi dictatorship, while at the same time we distrust our government’s long-term intentions, while at the same time we believe in the human capacity for nobility and kindness, and in the eventual coming of peace.

The pages keep turning. Who’s in charge of Iraq now? Who gets to decide? Arguments swirl even as US troops fight door-to-door. Rumsfeld threatens Syria may be next. We look at each other and realize we’ve failed, and then look again and realize we have succeeded. This is a long, long project we remind ourselves, a project that links us with peacemakers through all time. And so we prepare ourselves as wisely as we can for the continuing struggle.

Yet there is something missing. Something that feels a little betrayed in us, even denied, as we turn another page and ready ourselves for tomorrow. What is that? What haven’t we done? What haven’t we remembered?

I believe what we have missed has to do with grieving, and with the very human and mystical impulse in us to bless the dying and the dead.

Throughout the long months of protest and argument leading to this war, and through all the images of carnage we witnessed, we have tried to feel our solidarity with all the innocent victims of war: the Iraqi civilians and children, the Iraqi conscripts, and the US and British soldiers sent to liberate them. We believed there were wiser and more compassionate ways to address the dangers of Saddam’s regime. But we were not listened to, and now the wounds and killings have been done, and continue.

In the process of all this our hearts stretched, and opened, and now are broken. These feelings of pain are our allies. They have helped us recognize in our souls what we knew before in our minds, that there is no “other”. We are inside this human-ness, inside the soul of humanity in the same way everyone else is. There is no where to step back from it. Our customary sense of personal boundaries is not the whole truth.

I use the word “soul” on purpose. To me soul means that space in us in which we experience our connection to everything else, to every being. My soul bonds me to every other struggling soul in this drama of the Iraq war, from President Bush to the newly-made orphan falling from her mother’s arms. We are not separate, we are family.

To feel this connection is a great gift. It makes our lives awake and in touch. But it also carries a price, the price of grief when members of our human family suffer and die. And so our hearts break as we see images of the dead and maimed. At a certain point we don’t know how to hold this sadness and we turn away, or make ourselves numb. Soon we are troubled by our numbness and our turning away, yet we don’t know what else to do. In an unconscious attempt to take on the suffering, some of us become vulnerable to illness, or depression.

I believe there is something we can do, though it may not appear to change anything outwardly.
We can honor the suffering we witness by giving ourselves time to grieve. We can stop turning the pages for a moment, stop watching the next CNN report, stop attending to the next thing, and let there be silence in our house. Let the sadness in. Grieve. Grieve in whatever way we feel to. It may be for only a few moments, or it may be longer, but let us give it the time it takes, and as often as we feel the grief arise in us let us honor it.

And then we might try doing one more thing. Whether you are religious or not, it is very likely that if you were sitting with a family member who was dying you would want to soothe them in any way you could to help make their passing graceful and free from fear. Perhaps you would caress their forehead, or sing a quiet song, or repeat a prayer over and over. Whatever you would do, imagine what would be the quality of your heart during those moments as your loved one dies and you help them release in peace.

This quality of heart is, I believe, what we have to touch in ourselves and offer up to those children, women, and men in our common soul who have been wounded or died in a state of great distress during this war. They are here, inside us, with their confusion and fear and half-finished goodbyes as a missile hits their car or their house falls on them or flames sear their body. I think we need to go to them in our heart’s imagination and offer our most sincere tenderness and love. Help them, by our tender presence, to let go in peace. If it’s true we are all part of one soul, this gesture may be more than just a gesture. It may be the most relevant act for peace we can make at this moment, in our own soul as well as theirs. And then we will be peaceful enough and strong enough to turn to the path ahead.

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