And Good Versus Evil
Last week I wrote about the importance of meaningful conversations, and briefly alluded to situations in which these conversations are not advisable. Life has a way of teaching me tough lessons, and the past week has been an educational one.
As my dear friend (who is like a sister to me) and I spoke on the phone, she recounted in great detail the horrors that had gone down in Israel and the brutality with which the Hamas killed and kidnapped innocent Israeli civilians. Unfortunately, I was already familiar with these horrors and the faces of those victims, even if I did my best to avoid the news. I was also aware of the ongoing horrors in Gaza, which my friend didn’t mention, but I didn’t say anything. I listened. Until in a moment of pause, I could not stay silent anymore and asked, “and what is the plan after the IDF gets the last standing Hamas terrorist? Will there be peace at last? You’ll feel safer?” My friend’s voice broke and was angry. “I don’t know! I’m not a politician,” she said. “But I can’t afford to think about the other side now, because then I will get confused, and my safety will be in jeopardy.”
Although we said goodbye lovingly, I felt that I had made a mistake in my assumption that this was a conversation like many others between us, where we could voice our thoughts openly without fear of judgment, because our love for each other was greater than any terrorist attack. But in this conversation, we were not equals. My friend was calling me from the depths of the trauma and fear that she was still experiencing, whereas my distance from it afforded me the privilege of a wider perspective.
What I should have said to her was something like this:
The wise words of Yung Pueblo that Liam sent me moments later, tapping (again) into my emotional frequency. I sent this on to my friend “with love” as an apology.
What I received was a series of messages in Hebrew that was partly directed to me, but mostly directed to a group of “beautiful souls who don’t understand anything.” My friend accused me of “being influenced by Gazan hasbara” (‘explanation’ in Hebrew) and of “being confused like most ‘beautiful souls’.” She was hurt that I was not with them with full heart. “We have learned how to remember and not to forget, because we have been through a second Holocaust. There will be time for the beautiful souls to talk about peace, but not right now,” she wrote.
As one of those ‘beautiful souls’ I learned a valuable lesson. It was too early for an honest conversation; what my friend needed then was unconditional support. I sent my friend a voicemail in which I told her that I loved her and that she deserved to feel safe. I really didn’t want to lose my ahoti to this crisis.
I stayed away from social media and the news, but the comforting words of Gábor Maté found me again. It was while listening to Gábor that I have found some self-compassion for my desire to speak out, but also compassion for my friend who wasn’t ready to hear what I thought. Gábor himself was accused of being a traitor and “threatening the safety” of some of his Jewish followers. As always, he faced those accusations with grace and compassion. He explained that it is precisely because of his past, as a descendant of Holocaust survivors, that he promised himself that he would never remain silent in the face of suffering, even if it means speaking against the suffering that his people are inflicting on others. He apologised and said that this was “his truth,” but that it didn’t mean that he was right. It just meant that he was aligned with his truth.
I am not Gábor Maté and my words – my truth – are not going to have the same impact in the world. But it is my truth, even if I’m not right, and like Gábor, being aligned with my truth is so fundamentally important to me that as soon as I attempt to betray this truth, I get physically ill. This was the case in the first week of this conflict when I thought that I could numb the pain I was feeling with Italian (my natural anti-depressant). I can’t exactly call myself a “beautiful soul” (even if in this context I know it was meant as a derogatory term); I am a human being with her own faults and blind spots. But I know I’m not alone in feeling the pain on both sides and think that all of it is just too horrible. I couldn’t be with my friend (“us,” as she wrote in her message) “with a full heart,” because in my beautiful soul that doesn’t know any better there was also room left for “them”: those I was not meant to feel any compassion for.
According to my friend, this kind of compassion can be damaging. To reiterate this point she shared with me a “common expression that originates from the sages”: “All mercy upon the cruel, ends up being cruel to the merciful.” “It means,” she explained, that “if a person tries to pity people who don’t deserve pity, in the end it makes him cruel to the people who deserve it.”
Cruelty was certainly not what I intended, especially not towards someone I love and care about dearly. So, in the past week I have given much thought to this saying, as well as what health psychologist Kelly McGonigal said about “compassion collapse.” I went back to the notes I had taken after reading her book The Science of Compassion. In her book, McGonigal describes how contrary to logic, studies show that doctors who continue to exhibit compassion and humanity towards their suffering patients experience less burnout than doctors who attempt to put a “safe distance” between themselves and the patient’s pain. It turns out, caring actually creates resilience, and “compassion is the anti-toxin of the soul.”
Compassion collapse, or compassion fade, also refers to a psychological theory denoting the human tendency to turn away from mass suffering. We tend to feel less, and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim. We don’t connect to data and numbers; we connect to personal stories, and pictures.
When we stop seeing people as people, but see them as an inseparable part of a group, and a group that we can reduce to “animals,” and “rats,” it is easier to say things like, “let’s go fuck ‘em,” and “let’s gas them.” It somehow feels acceptable then to stab to death a six year old Palestinian boy and injure his mother in Chicago, or shoot on a Jewish school here in Montréal. Somehow, it can feel even “exhilarating” that a “resistance to oppression” has gone as far as raping women, massacring children and kidnapping others. And somehow, it feels like a proportionate and acceptable response to cut the water and power to a population of over two million people and bomb them relentlessly, because after all, they have voted for the terrorist group that uses them as human shields, so it’s their fault. And on and on goes the cycle of hate and violence that we somehow believe that will bring with it peace. In the meanwhile, both antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise and good friends and family members turn against each other.
The world has gone mad and no one feels safe. How from this place of growing hate and compassion collapse is the “repairing of the world” (Tikkun olam/ תִּיקּוּן עוֹלָם) possible?
Is it really “too much mercy” for the undeserving “cruel” that makes this repair impossible, or is it our natural tendency to de-humanise a group of people that is outside of our group of people and decide that they are the cruel ones, and therefore undeserving of our pity?
This is the question I am asking myself, as I attempt to stay true to my truth, without inflicting cruelty on those I love. God knows, there is enough cruelty in the world. I think on what Gábor Maté said, and hope that it would somehow resonate with the people in power: “It is impossible from a vengeful place to create a peaceful world. The very thing you want is the thing that you are undermining.” But like Gábor, I have little faith in politicians. I hope to reach ordinary people and remind them of our shared humanity. This is not an easy job. It is much easier to remain silent, or read poetry in Italian. But this is the job I have signed up to as a writer. This is my voice. Take it, or leave it. Love it, or hate it. But in my beautiful soul that doesn’t understand anything, I must carry on believing in humanity, and see people as people. Otherwise, I’ll go mad.