Is the only way we know our world through relationships? Is this how we “know” anything?
In light of the Paris attacks, I am reeling. Not just because of my mushy love of the French language and culture, not just in reaction to the use of blatant violence, and not over the seething hatred that caused it and is now being amplified throughout the nations. No; I am reeling because of the gaping hole it has exposed in our relationships with the greater world.
An attack on western ideals from an “other” that is vehemently against them leads to an outpouring of sentiment, anger, fear and grief from all the western world, especially the United States. But these same events in Middle Eastern countries does no such thing. No outpouring of grief or anger. No flag profile pics on Facebook. Why not? We’re all human, right?
I know the horribly simple answer to that question could be that those countries are always war-stricken. They are always fraught with violence, so it is not new news. Our mortal hearts cannot bear to be burdened constantly, 24/7, with the atrocities that are committed worldwide on a daily basis. It is just too much for our hearts to handle, so we have to push some of it away. We have to ignore it in order to live our lives.
But I think this is only a partial answer.
When we heard that people were indiscriminately mowed down by gunmen at a concert, walking down a sidewalk, or eating out at a café, we were able to envision ourselves in their shoes.
That was OUR concert.
That was OUR favorite café.
That was OUR stadium game.
It hit home to us how real this threat was when we could imagine ourselves in these instances we know every day and see them interrupted so maliciously. So viciously.
But what about Beirut? The war torn communities of Syria? Iraq? Boko Haram? Myanmar? These places are remote and perceived as foreign. We in the ensconced west cannot mentally picture ourselves in the daily life or culture of these places. We cannot relate to the experiences and daily routines there, so we are hard-pressed to find a way to personally empathize with those places and their people. We cannot imagine ourselves in their shoes without great effort, and without a great tearing down of cultural walls. We just don’t have the tools for intimate knowingness of these places unless we take the effort or visit there.
“It’s always violent there.”
“There is always unrest there.”
“There is nothing I could personally do about those places, so why waste time worrying about it?”
An easy wave of the hand to push these places out of mind. These are people of different religions and ethnicities that we cannot easily fathom relating to. Outside of our bubble of known experience.
But they are human. Just like us.
They were shaped by their society and environment. Just like us.
They were born to mothers and fathers who wanted the best for their children. Just like us.
They were kids once, too, with hopes and dreams and the want to play. Just like us.
How can we build empathy for foreign places when their daily way of life and culture is so different?
Perhaps just by recognizing the cultural barriers in place, so that we can then try to take them down. It occurs to me that only by noticing the mental and imaginative walls we build can we acknowledge them and start to dismantle them. By mentally ignoring them away we only reinforce them.
The French language has two different words for having knowledge, or to know something: ‘Je connais’ is used when we are familiar with a person and place and have created a relationship with them.
“I know my Mother.”
‘Je sais’ is used in expressing factual knowledge or something you have learned, as the things you learn in school.
“I know how to tie my shoe.”
I feel that it is time for us to create the English equivalent for ‘Je connais’ when referring to knowledge of the world around us. For us to be able to say we don’t just know about the world, we have a knowingness of it. We are familiar with it. We have a relational interaction of the world.
A relatable, empathetic knowingness. How do we achieve this? I’m not sure. I just hope and pray and act in love as much as possible. Maybe it will make a dent.
Je suis Paris? I am not just trying to relate to one city, one culture. I want to strive to relate to all possibilities. All people.
Je suis Tu. I am you.