Sunday, November 18, 2012

The unbearable heaviness of why


"Yeah, of course. I expected you to have one of these over your desk," said a friend who glimpsed into my Boston room for the first time.

She was referring to the cork boards that are tacked onto the wall, full of envelopes of old letters, Post-Its Elijah slipped into my coat every time I boarded a plane for somewhere far away. A postcard from the DC cherry blossom days. The first red leaf I caught this fall. The poem on the wall, that ever-whispered poem on the wall.

The neighboring cork board is reserved for snippets of learning. The loving Post-It notes of poetry are replaced with ones carrying the history of UN peace operations. When a quote from an assigned reading stands out and floats in my head for a day, it lands on paper and sits across from me while I type all week, reminding me of the inspiration out there. One such quote, from Scott Straus' The Order of Genocide, reads:
"I never expected to be in Zaire or Rwanda or to cover raw violence, but once I witnessed such events, I could not let go of them easily. Eventually my trauma formulated itself as an intellectual question. Why does violence of this magnitude happen?"
I like to live in questions. Mr. Straus will have to forgive me for having chosen to live in his question this semester, rather than articulating one of my own. He will further have to forgive me for treating trauma as more than an intellectual question. I have spent three months (arguably, three years. Arguably, longer than that.) asking "why?" in regard to mass atrocities and poking my way through answers. The ethno-racial approach. Structuralism. Constructivism. The resources dilemma. Bosnia. Rwanda. Darfur. Negotiations, peace talks, cynicism, fatalism, and a ray of hope. And a ceaseless pursuit of why.

Unsatisfying as the answers to the why's of mass atrocities are, it is the personal dimensions of trauma that have been chipping away at me. On a week that held an escalation of the Israel-Gaza conflict, all of my grief, and the kind of tragedy that strikes one personally on a mass scale, I am plagued by why.

Why do loved ones slip into the night because of one missed heartbeat? Why do we not get to say goodbye? Why are we still in pain, years later? Decades later, even? Why do loved ones who still live get visited by unspeakable pain? Why do we live in communities that let individuals slip through the cracks? Why do we allow that to happen? Why can we not heal all the pain, lessen all the hardship? Why are we visited by hardship in the first place? By grief? Again? Why us?

A mother I hold dear to my heart is a firm believer in "everything happens for a reason." Elijah, earlier today, in an attempt to commiserate and comfort, to love and persevere, to cope, to cope through loving, to cope lovingly, even ventured that it does not matter why the universe deals the cards it does. It does not matter why, at the moment, we seem to hold a monopoly of pain.

Like Straus, though, like everyone living in questions, I'd like to know why. It would make all the wondering lighter.

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