While browsing for an image of refugees to use for this post, I have just stumbled on one of those American websites which thinks it has permission to say anything, as long as what it says justifies both its fear and its hatred of all who are perceived as alien, specifically Muslims, and Muslim refugees in particular.
In its paranoia, the site claims that Texas will soon have to submit to Sharia law, that term being understood in its most pejorative, narrow and repressive sense.
It also states that refugees disembarking on the Italian island of Lampedusa complain that there are not enough ‘freebies’ and that they also complain of receiving no support from the Italian government – nor should they, the website says. The rhetoric continues in a far more extreme and barely printable vein, so I hastily deleted the page from my browser history, a kneejerk reaction perhaps.
Fear, even the puerile fear of being thought to take an interest in dubious websites, is what prompts kneejerk reactions, including that of turning off, or turning on, that particular site, or a programme or news item which fascinates as much as it informs.
We are fascinated by other people’s pain, and we fear that fascination. What other possible explanation could there be for the commercial success of the thoroughly nasty in the world of media, books and entertainment – apart from the possibility of there being something thoroughly nasty inside all of us which we both fear and are compelled to revisit?
Some of us are quite addicted to the news. But being a bit of a news junkie is not just a slightly voyeuristic form of conscience appeasement, in other words, wanting to know what is happening to strangers in distant places and convincing ourselves that we care. It is also about trying to make sense of suffering and of understanding ourselves and our own suffering a little better.
It seems that engaging with the pain of strangers, and of other nations, reveals two things about suffering in general. First, that every person’s suffering, and the suffering of every innocent creature, is connected to the suffering of those who have gone before and, second, that suffering, including the suffering of the earth and of animals, is never pointless, although it may seem so at the time. Engaging with the suffering of others, even in the briefest and most superficial way, reveals how all suffering is connected. But knowing this does not necessarily makes us more caring or more generous because despite the immediacy of the internet and the sense of intimacy which it brings to any violent or tragic situation, the suffering, as far as we are concerned, is still going on somewhere else. It is not happening to me or to anyone I know. It is also compressed into a very short time space, enough for a short interview and some film footage. The suffering of others is both immediate and far away, close up and beyond reach, real and unreal.
Paradoxically, this creates a kind of limbo in which we can more or less ‘deal’ with the chaos and breakdown of nations and communities and with the devastation of lives, lives such as those which wash up on the shores of Lampedusa. But instantaneous information also disempowers. Before we have had a chance to think about the situation in any depth, the moment has passed and another news item is before us, usually wholly unrelated to what preceded it. This in turn contributes to a sense of not being able to hold things together, one which mirrors the fragmentation of the world in which, as the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’.
One way to counter this sense of falling apart is to consciously ‘hold’ all that is going on around us, and the essence of any present moment – its ‘itness’, within the embrace of God and to allow him to ‘grasp’ it. We hold, by simply paying attention to the news, and to the moment being covered, in the presence of God, while at the same time letting go. Ultimately, it is the letting go which matters, the allowing which comes with acceptance of the way things are and the acknowledgment that we have all played a part in making them so. Once the allowing has been done we can yield the world’s suffering, and our own, to the only one who can prevent an irrevocable falling apart of all things.