I am becoming immune to body-counts, to the number of people who have been maimed or killed by bombings and drone attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen.
The numbers slip past me like sudden rain showers. Here one moment, cause of dismay, gone the next; forgotten. I change the radio station. I look out the window, past the oak grove. I turn away. I wonder what to make for dinner: chicken or meatloaf?
We lived in Venezuela in the early 1990s, a time of political turmoil and hot summers. During those heated days water was a welcomed relief. The rain poured down, torrentially, for a few minutes at a time. Aquacerro is what they called it, “mountain of water.” Everybody would dash under a roof to wait it out. Dirt, debris, dog feces, everything in the road would rush down the hill in a mountain of rain. It would stop as quickly as it began and the hot sun, without pause, would heat up the pavement. In ten minutes, evaporation and steam would cease and all would be dry again; back to normal.
This is how the death-count touches me, an aquacerro of emotion. I run for cover. The newscaster changes the subject; or I turn the dial. I emerge from my shelter. All is clear, back to normal, chicken or meatloaf?
I can only hold so much inside and death is not something I hold very well. It is a cold response; not calculated. It comes naturally these days, too much tragedy, too much war; too much rhetoric filling the airways.
I pause as I write. Excuses, really. I have this subtle fear that I am losing something inside: is it soul, or compassion, or something else? I don’t know.
These days I compartmentalize my life. This is where I will put compassion (my daughters, my husband, my neighbors). This is where I will refrain from compassion (the world, anything beyond a five mile radius). It is a necessity. I shrink from admitting it; but there it is.
Last week I attended another session with my therapist. A psychologist, trained in the practice of EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. She was recommended to me after I became stuck, in Spiritual Direction. I can’t move beyond a few emotional glitches. They are cemented in my psyche; control me when they are active. I find it hard to stop crying.
I told her that my goal was to work with three emotions that, at times, have me in their grip: a sense of despair, confused thinking, and fear that haunts me from the time we lived in Venezuela. I tell her, “I have this overall sense of sadness about life. When I came back from Venezuela in 1995 I said to myself, “something inside of you has died.” I was very clear about this, although I did not know what it meant. And for the longest time this sense of death has clung to me. After so many years I am stronger now. So I choose to face into what this death means to me. When I was so afraid, all I could do was survive. Perhaps this is where the compartmentalizing began.
She tells me she can work with me. She takes my hands and applies a gentle rhythmic pulsing to acupressure points on the palms; connecting the logical brain with the emotional brain; back and forth; back and forth. In trauma one reacts out of survival. In trauma, the logical and the emotional brain have not had a chance to process the incoming data, together. One can become stuck in a pattern of responding, on only the emotional level. EMDR gives one the time to integrate the incoming data. “Close your eyes, ” she says, “let’s begin with the feeling of confusion. Where are you?”
She takes me back, gently, pulsing. I will myself back. “The suggestion of confusion” leads to rapid images: vivid details of my life in Venezuela, working in the barrio with the young catechists, planning lessons for the children, skimming mosquito larvae out of the drinking water; washing diapers by hand and hanging them on the line to dry. These familiar images lead to memories of laughter with my language teacher as she gently corrects an error I have made as I walk her home to her barrio. These crash into feelings of uncertainty, fear as we hear distant bombing coming nearer. It is all there, full blown and my mind wants to stop.
A tear runs down my cheek. “Where are you?” she asks. “We’re on a hill. I’ve just brought Mariyelis, my teacher, to the ravine. She walks over the fallen log, to the barrio on the other side. There’s a soldier, with a rifle, there. I wait. I wait until she crosses, until she moves up the opposite hill. Then I head back up my hill. There is another explosion. The ground shakes. I jump. I turn to see the airport, five miles away, exploding; a sonic boom. F-16s are zooming overhead it is deafening. Mariyelis is running. Everything is stark, still. I’m not moving.
“Then there’s an uproar of cries; people pour into the street; grabbing one another; standing in shock. We are in the midst of a coup attempt and I am in a movie watching it happen. Always it feels like I am in a movie, live, watching it happen.”
“What else?” she says, “Go deeper, what do you see?” I don’t want to go deeper. I resist.
It’s confusing. But that is not the point I wish to make here.
The point I wish to make is that after so many years the image is still burned in my mind. The point is that I have not been able to find release. Yes, there were repercussions to the coup attempt: months of curfews and bus stoppages and civil liberties curtailed, neighbors going into hiding, round up of dissidents, our neighbors imprisoned—followed by a banking crises, the impeachment of a president, daily hospital, school and government shut-downs and strikes. Yes, all of this contributed to the trauma; all of this added up to the sense of being overwhelmed by life.
And so, when I am back in the States, when life has slowed down a little, I seek out a psychologist, one known for helping people move through trauma, after the fact; one who helps people re-pattern their coping skills, and memories so that they are not ruled by a patterned emotional reaction. But this is not the point I want to make, either.
Maybe this gets closer to the point I am trying to speak about.
Kathy Kelly, a friend, an American woman who had traveled numerous times to Iraq with ‘Voices in the Wilderness’, bringing medicine and aid, during the 1990s U. S. embargo of Iraq, was witness to the Shock and Awe Campaign our country waged on Baghdad, in 2002. She hid in the basement bomb shelter of the Al Fanar hotel. “Sometimes the bombing would last ten minutes,” she said, “other raids would go on for an hour or a lifetime.” One day the air-raid sirens went off while a group of teenagers were playing outside. “I tried to persuade them to go into the shelter-to finish their game in the morning.” “Madame,” one replied, “we may not be here in the morning.”
This is more to the point: These are children; teenagers in the midst of war playing while the bombs fly. I worry for them. That is the point. What dreams will these children harbor? What sounds and sights will haunt their hidden minds, patterning a gut instinct and fear?
No one seems to get the point about the after-effects of any bombing. Yes, we in the States attempt to work with the returning soldiers who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder. But I am not talking about them, here. What disturbs me is that no one, here, is talking about the effects our bombs have on the children who have suffered from experiencing them in Iraq and Afghanistan and Yemen. Few seem to think of these consequences, the after-effects of our bombs. There are myriad of after-effects.
Maybe I am too soft. Maybe I am not able to stand the harsher reality of the Middle East. After all, the thinking goes, they’re use to it—isn’t their history fraught with war and in-fighting? This, then, must come second nature.
It reminds me of some of the comments we received when we came back from Venezuela and described the barrio, corrugated metal one-room homes, mud floors and the daily reality of living with no running water or bathrooms.
‘But they must be used to it.”
And my response, after searching for a way to connect “U.S. suburban” reality with “Venezuelan barrio ” reality was to ask: “Do you know what their favorite evening TV program is” It’s Silver Spoons and The Golden Girls? Think of the lives depicted there. They know what they don’t have and it doesn’t make their life easier.” Try as I may, I find it hard to understand how people don’t understand this—no one is use to poverty, or want or war.
On the radio newscast, today, they speak of other deadly bombs. Over forty killed. My heart pumps faster; for an instant; I can hold only so much.
“Go deeper,” my psychologist says. “No, I don’t want to,” I resist.
To distract myself I begin a litany of dinner options,”….maybe stir fry would be better…but the kids really do like meatloaf.”
Maybe the point I’m try to make is this: if I who have experienced a tiny semblance of a war can compartmentalize my life into where I will place my compassion and where I will turn it off, then what about those of us who have not experienced war? Do we also compartmentalize? What do we feel for those who die; who witness war? Does it inform our lives? Do we feel the pain? the injustice in our bones? And if we don’t, then why not?
In truth, sometimes I do sit in silence. I do recall the numbers of the dead broadcast across the radio; but only occasionally. And I wonder about the children and the mothers and fathers and those weakened by age. I wonder how they will cope once the bombing and the attacks stop.
I know that they will harbor in their souls, a fear; a silent fear that tears at one’s depth; and perhaps they will also harbor despair and confusion of thought; and an overall sense of sadness about life. Perhaps they too will need to compartmentalize their lives as we are so wont to do when we are overwhelmed.
I am afraid of this compartmentalizing. It can numb the heart; it can kill the spirit.
I am afraid we can tend to do this in our world too much. The political world is too vast, too overwhelming. We have our “personal ethical self ” which responds to family and home and our “social self” which, when overwhelmed, can close off the world.
To survive in this war-world-mentality must we cut-off the reality of the other?
And if so, my question is, at what cost?
Those who are bombed today will face repercussions from those bombs for years to come. A shrunken soul is what I call it. Not of choice, but of survival.
We say we fight the enemy. We say we are against terrorism. We say we are helping to make the world and the Middle East free because “they” the terrorists, are against freedom.
In truth, our war is destroying any real freedom for anybody.
Because of the war, we, in the west, do not feel free to feel. We have become desensitized to the pain of others. We do not feel free to do anything to stop the war. We have become numb. We turn away.
And they, by being bombed, over and over again, also lose freedom because bombing cuts the soul in two.
An ancient koan asks, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there, does anyone hear it?”
I look at the statistics and I ask, “if a child dies from a bomb or a drone attack and no one is there does anyone feel it?”
My heart says, “Yes.” If a child dies from a bomb then our spirit feels it.
We as a world are diminished each time a child dies. We too, are diminished each time a bomb goes off. The spirit, out of necessity, will recoil into itself, peering out only when it is safe. And after experiencing a bomb, very little looks safe. We are cut in two.
It has begun to rain outside. Not the quick aquacerro of a Venezuelan summer but the gentle rain of a Minnesota spring. I fine-tune the radio station. I leave the dinner. I open the back door. I brace myself, I will get wet.