Recently I was searching for a half-remembered quote from William Faulkner to share with a friend who is celebrating her 10th anniversary in a challenging but rewarding job. Google and Goodreads came to my rescue, but in my searching I stumbled upon Faulkner’s Noble Prize acceptance speech. This paragraph stopped me cold:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?
I immediately scrolled back to the top of the screen to see when, exactly, this had been written. 1950 – a bit later than I would have guessed. But it could have been written yesterday. The fear of violence has become part of the fabric of daily life in America, both in the personal and public space.
Of course, the threat of violence – and actual violence – has been a near-constant reality for many Americans, well before this recent spate of shootings. Structural violence exists in our policies of exclusion, discrimination, and racism. Many young Americans spend much of their energy negotiating situations of violence, be it in their neighborhood or school or their interactions with police. And minority populations in the US, including transgender individuals, women, gays, and other vulnerable groups are more likely to be victims of violence.
But all of a sudden, everyone thinks they are a target for Muslim terrorists. Mass shootings in the U.S. are disturbingly common, but until now they have not inspired any action beyond the usual “thoughts and prayers”. After Paris and after San Bernardino, however, people feel more threatened and more vulnerable than ever before. And I find myself watching from a distance as my country goes crazy.
It is a strange thing to observe your home country from afar, to be aware of the mood but not to share in it…not to really feel it. Some days I cannot bear to read the news from the U.S. I don’t want to know what thoughtless things were said by someone who is trying to convince us of his or her leadership abilities. I don’t want to know about a Muslim shop owner beaten up, or Muslim children being bullied at school. I don’t want to know about the increase in gun sales after San Bernardino, or the calls from law enforcement professionals for broader concealed carry rights.
From my perspective (and I don’t just mean from Europe), it looks like madness. And while I read all the usual global news sources to learn what is happening, I find myself searching for more. How can I make sense of the fear and the anger and the hateful things being said by Americans? In this season of Advent, how can I respond with compassion and tolerance, instead of adding to the anger? I look for solace from the only people who seem reasonable these days: poets, writers, artists.
I’ll leave you with a reminder from Mary Doria Russell’s book Dreamers Of the Day. In a season of hope that is being marred by hate and hysteria, it’s a reminder to me that we always have a choice about what we buy. And from whom.
“When it comes down to it, I don’t have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is:
Read to children.
And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”