It's typical when something horrendous happens for people who were both directly involved and helpless observers to try to make some sense of senseless violence. Writing a blog post isn't the most useful response on earth, but then again, apart from donations to the International Red Cross and other tireless organizations, or dropping everything to get a medical degree and join Doctors Without Borders perhaps, which frankly is beyond my skill set, pretty much all responses other than thoughtful consideration are symbolic and self-soothing. When 9/11 occurred, The Onion released an article titled "Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake." This was not a mean-spirited piece, nor was it a lampoon. We couldn't fit 9/11 into our heads, so we did what we could to affirm our values, to create things expressing that liberty and justice are still our ideals when we aren't distracted by fast car chases ending in glorious explosions or food mash-ups that started as a drunken dare (I'm looking at you, Taco Bell Sausage and Cheese Biscuit breakfast taco).
But a number of people today have expressed discouragement over the depravity of the human race at large following the repellent and reprehensible attacks in Paris yesterday. Not to forget the ones in Thailand, Baghdad, and a dozen other locales in recent months. How do you get up and keep fighting when the world is so dark? How do you make sense of evil when evil scores a direct hit against innocent lives? How do you not throw in the activist towel and call it a day and dig a bunker?
My thoughts whenever faced with this question might sound like direst pessimism, but they never make me feel that way, so I'll write them down, which is the author's version of baking a cake with the French flag on it. The truth is, yesterday we were walking around thinking humanity has its severe issues (terror, racism, bigotry, and violence certainly among them), but we really needed to get to the post office before five or else we'd have to pretty much wait until Monday to mail that package of artisanal yarn for Grandma's birthday, which would then make it late, which Grandma doesn't really mind, but it's the principle of the thing. Today some of us are walking around facing very real trauma in France, and my heart goes out to them unreservedly. Ditto for anyone who has ever lost a loved one to terror and had to relive that memory in stereo. But for those of us around here who are simply discouraged, I say: humans have always been like this. So there is no reason to give up now, any more than Joseph Stalin was a reason to give up.
If you want to get Bible-story about it, recall that the first murder happened pretty damn fast, and was fratricide at that. Gilgamesh and Enkidu didn't have it easy. Those Greek gods were real dicks. You could be talking about the cruelties of native Irish bondage, the colonial enslavement of millions, Pol Pot, or Sandy Hook, and you'd still leave with the impression that maybe the race needs a "reset" button.
It doesn't help the people who died tragically in Paris yesterday that other people have died tragically. It doesn't help their families. It doesn't help their friends. It doesn't help their neighbors and their pets and their co-workers.
But if it helps you to know that we are technically living in the least violent era of human history, then think about that, and think about how you are only in charge of your own life, and how your life influences lives around you, and rest is beyond your control. Think about how yesterday you weren't considering donating your money for refugee relief that very second, but today maybe you are, because their daily struggles against extremism have been made real. (After some research, I chose the American Refugee Committee.) Think about the responsibility of shining hope into the lives of people who have truly lost someone.
Gandhi said, "There is no path to peace. Peace is the path." We will always face avarice, hatred, and rage in the world. We will always struggle with selfishness in our own lives, and perhaps worse than mere selfishness. And we won't arrive at peace as if it's a daisy-strewn city on a mountaintop where the goats frolic and Heidi is singing a duet with Maria Von Trapp. All we can do is walk the path of peace, get up when we fall, and try to help others find it again when we lose our way. Again, it may sound like pessimism to suggest that homo sapiens is never going to get it 100% right. But if we truly can believe that progress doesn't need to be perfection, and that our power to do good exists no matter what atrocities are committed by others, then I believe we will always be able to make a difference.
So make a donation. Offer your couch to a stranded French traveler. Bake a cake with the Eiffel Tower peace sign on it. Your actions still matter, and hope is not lost if you carry it with you.