The Reality of Compassion: a statement on terrorism

Friday night I sat in our writing workshop bantering, talking, thinking, listening, exchanging writing with a group of fabulous other writers and thinkers. During a lull I opened my Facebook page on my phone and “prayers for Paris” popped up in multiple posts. My heart rate soared, my stomach convulsed but I had no idea what had happened.

Three hours later I finally learned pieces and parts of the story.

It was enough for me. I didn’t play out the news footage, only read one article, made the only statement I could think of, and bowed my head even though I am not a religious person.

For me, Paris, Kenya, Israel … the attacks, the terrorist acts fall closer to home. Like the Murrah building bombing and the 9/11 attacks, the latest episodes in this war touch me in a way not many other people can understand. Because I am a survivor of a terrorist attack.

I don’t talk about it. I haven’t talked about it in the past at all. Most people who know me don’t know what happened. I’ve only ever trusted a handful of people with that information. Some have taken it in stride. Others have used it against me. Most just blink a lot and say nothing. It’s a lot to take in. I know.

The conversations that take place on Facebook and Twitter, that challenge of “what are we going to do about it?” and “We have to stop this now!” upset me on a level I can’t express because those challenges miss the entire point of terrorism, they miss what is core to survival, what matters in life. I keep answering them with one word. THE one word that I have learned over the past 20 + years of being a survivor that is the ONLY thing that makes a difference in this world … but it falls on deaf ears time and time again.

I wasn’t going to blog about Paris, about terrorism. I have other worries in my life right now and I stand fast on the position I hold. Arguing it is pointless for me.

But …

I have always believed that I lived through my experience for a reason but I’ve never quite known what that reason was. I mean, how do you reconcile being blown up with a bomb and walking away with the trivialities of every day life? It is a constant battle for me. It never goes away. It will never go away.

Yet, as this situation has played out and I’ve maintained my comments on other posts, I feel it’s time to speak. Publically. Maybe, just maybe, it will make someone think. I don’t know. If I’ve learned anything through this ordeal it is that I can not predict or control what other people will do. Ever. Let alone change their thoughts merely by saying they should.

When I was 23 years old I was walking home from work in London when a car bomb went off. The whole year I had been there was volatile the world over. Living in London dropped me closer to the realities of war than I had ever been on American soil. Weekly bomb threats in the Tube, riots in the streets, demonstrations that resulted in violence were a new normal for me to adjust to. But the car bomb was different.

For all practical outlooks, there were two victims. Me and the woman who bled to death in my arms. It wasn’t a crowded street or restaurant or sports venue or office complex or airplane. And because of the UK’s view on terrorism it went unreported and largely unnoticed. Sure people knew. The neighbors in the area, the emergency response crews, the police. But it wasn’t like 9/11 or Paris. The world went about its business. No one freaked out and became politically ramped up or religious zealots demanding a solution.

I was left to “get on with it” as they say. Told not to speak to anyone about it. Told to keep it all quiet. And I did. For 20 years I told no one.

But it didn’t go away. The trauma it caused in my life has been overwhelming, devastating at times, … terrorizing. Because that’s what acts of terrorism do – they terrorize people. They put human beings in a constant state of flight or fight. They make the world a place that is black and white, right or wrong, win or lose … because THAT is their agenda.

Terrorism works on a zero-sum theory – for one party to win, everyone else must lose.

The minute people try to run away or try to fight back the terrorists have won the war. They’ve created a state of terror. That’s why the only answer to terrorist acts of violence is compassion.

One word, one act – compassion.

Compassion is not a game plan, a counter-attack strategy, a method of fighting. It’s not love or hate, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s not about right or wrong. Compassion is not black or white or any shade of gray. It doesn’t reside in a box or out of a box. It’s not a purpose in life or a pathway to a more enlightened world. It is beyond all of that. It exists in its own sphere.

Compassion is the only thing we have that will overcome evil because it refuses to view the world the same way evil does.

So what is compassion if it’s not all those things? The best way I can define it is to tell a story.

I used to go to a church that was rather large and vibrant long before all the big mega churches existed. It was vibrant for a reason. The pastor of the church was a man of compassion. I used to say compassion dripped from his hands and flooded from his eyes and washed over people from his lips.

One day, just after evening services when everyone was cleaning up and standing in small huddles planning where to go eat dinner, a man came into the church. He was dirty. He smelled of alcohol. And he started screaming at the top of his lungs about his wife being corrupted by the church. He walked up to this pastor, blamed him for the demise of his marriage, and punched the pastor in the face.

The group of deacons and other men in the room swarmed around the man, but the pastor held them off, told them not to touch him. So the group formed a big circle, ready to fight or do what was necessary to protect the pastor and rid this man from the building.

The pastor, blood dripping down his face, walked up to this man, stuck his hand on the man’s head (which was a normal act when he prayed for someone), and said, “This man needs our love more than we need his.”

The man literally fell on the floor weeping, all the fight he had displayed moments earlier gone, all the hatred vanished.

What that pastor showed that man and the group of by-standers was an act of compassion. He didn’t fight the man, he didn’t reciprocate hate with hate or violence with violence, he didn’t call the police, he didn’t preach and tell the man he was wrong, he didn’t come up with a game plan to win, … he simply acted compassionately.

I know the arguments people have with this idea in the face of terrorism as a world act, as something bigger than any of us. How do you use compassion to fix that? How do you use compassion to fend off a world terror? If you walk up to a gunman and touch him, he’s going to shoot you in the face.

The truth is the only way to fix a global problem is to start with yourself, your life, your friends, your family. One on one, person to person. We don’t have a global fight. We have personal fights. We have one life, not the lives of hundreds of millions of people, to be responsible for despite what Facebook or Twitter might have us believe.

Terrorism isn’t a global issue. It’s a personal one. Any act of hate no matter how small, no matter the source, no matter the religious backing, is a terrorist act. If it causes someone fear, it is terrorism … even if it never makes a newspaper or media outlet. Hate is evil.

Compassion is the only answer.



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