Love in the Time of Cholera: An Attack on Paris. An Attack on the Courage to Love.
I always try to be brave and say brave things when there is a work of terror. Writers and musicians are put on this planet to collect wounded souls from the battlefield and tend them with beauty, but last night I couldn’t do it. I just sat on my bed and cried for Paris.
Memes started flying through my social media feeds, and I was thankful to see that other people had picked up the gauntlet.
Look for the helpers.
Everything sad will come untrue.
Keep calm and carry on.
But last night I couldn’t help them sing those songs. I went fetal in my bunker and wept like a scared kid.
I teach high school literature, and some of the best writing I know fits one person’s story in the larger context of a troubled community or nation. My favorite television show is Foyle’s War, and (aside from a horrible crush on Michael Kitchen) I love it because Horowitz juxtaposes individual struggles against the larger context of World War II. He gives us the intimate story alongside the movement of faceless armies.
I don’t think it reduces the gravity of either type of pain to do this. Rather, it reminds us that mass slaughter comes back down to devastated mothers grieving at the kitchen table. And it also shows us that a universe of suffering can be found in a single human heart.
That’s how national tragedies tend to come to us, isn't it? We recount our lives by story, so we remember Hurricane Katrina as the year of our divorce, or 9-11 as the year a parent died, and while we give to relief organizations to help those who are in the bloody fray, images of foreign despair somehow (also) take on the job of illustrating the closest struggles of our hearts. We can only love in the time of cholera.
So I will tell you a little of what happened inside me last night when I heard about the news. I was talking to a friend on the phone about my writing, wrestling through what God might want me to do in the future in light of the violence of my own past.
"Violence" might be too strong a word, or maybe it's not. I can't tell yet.
I can tell you that several years ago, my husband was asked to step down from leading a church he had started, which meant that overnight I lost 250 friends as well as my role as their pastor’s wife. People hear that and assume that there was an affair or something, but there wasn't. Church politics propelled the decision.
This isn’t the place to discuss those details, but I can say that after ten years of watching hard things happen among those people, after years of watching my husband try to absorb those ugly things so nobody else got hurt, after years of waiting for the Lord to rescue us, this final blow nearly killed me. I mean that. I barely lived through it.
My body survived that trauma, but I’m not sure my soul did. I’m not sure my husband’s soul did, either. Last night I was looking through old photo albums, and I see different people walking around in our younger flesh.
In snapshots of everyday life I see the faces of people who ended up kissing us in the garden (Et tu, Brute?), and I am a little ashamed, and a little in awe of the fact that we were ever so unafraid and so trusting.
Maybe you know what I mean because you have your own story like that.
I don’t know what you see when you look back at your old pictures. Pictures of your husband before you knew that he was addicted to strip clubs. Pictures of your son before he got stuck in drugs. Pictures of your life before the economy crashed and you accumulated more debt than you will ever pay back. Pictures of you before the diagnosis. Pictures from high school before the abortion. Pictures of your wife in the hospital after she gave birth to your daughter, and before she left you for another man.
Life before terror hit.
And you grieve the loss of that life, and you grieve the loss of yourself, because we change in trauma.
We doubt more. We flinch more. We can’t relax again. We can't help it.
I realized some of this last night, and I had to do the embarrassing work of writing two different women and confessing that I had been living out of past trauma. These are brilliant women, writers and thinkers, and they have reached out to me to welcome me into their world. They’ve tried to encourage me and help me.
I have admired them from a distance, but I have also been scared of them, because the sound of bombs still goes off in my head. I can’t shake my nightmares, my memories, images of running screaming and bloody from the rubble. Every noise sounds like an explosion.
So I try to engage with beautiful people from a safe distance now, because I’m afraid that if I let them get to know me, they won’t like me. Afraid that everything that happened once will happen all over again, and I’m not sure my heart can take that one more time.
But here is Paris. And the goal of terrorists isn’t just death, it’s fear. Terrorists want to use 100 lives, or 250 lives, or 2000 lives to make the whole word afraid to live. Afraid to love. Afraid to engage. It’s a strategy they learned from the very pit of hell.
And this is exactly what I have let happen inside me. I've let them win.
I woke up today thinking about what the explosions of my past have done. Thinking about where I flinch now because of what I’ve been through. Wondering where you flinch because of what you’ve been through.
I keep hearing that God loves us, which is easier to believe at the cognitive level than down in our hearts after we’ve been hurt. But if He does love us, that means something about living here is safe even when living here isn’t safe. It means that something about loving people is safe, even when loving people isn’t safe.
And even when the PTSD tells us the only thing to do is hide, maybe one of the first steps to winning a larger war is taking a breath, and looking a single invitation to friendship in the eyes, and not running away.