Leonardo da Vinci wrote that silence was the best way to strengthen authority. Lincoln suggested that the sin of silence, instead of protest, made cowards of men. Neither was on Facebook or Pinterest, nor could they have envisioned the great equalizing platform of social media, where blowhards get as much airtime as critical thinkers.
I’d written a long draft for my blog about the murders in Paris, which I left unpublished. Often I allow events in the news to pass by my writing with nary a whisper. I am deliberately obtuse at times. Too often we try to draw our connection to tragedy, try to put ourselves in the picture, try to see what it means to us. It rings false to me, like filling the air with anecdotes from the brother of the barber’s cousin who ate at that particular cafe in 1987. Perhaps it is our cry to say me too.
I’ve been on the periphery of tragedy in my life. Sometimes I tell the stories. A murdered grandfather. Suicide by my father and an aunt. A mass campus shooting ending violently in a classroom where I had been the hour before. These are stories that make me, for a few moments, interesting in the eyes of others. It’s the kid performing Over the Rainbow and telling knock-knock jokes at Thanksgiving. It’s the ham and the drama queen waiting at the edges of my ego to break out in tragic dance.
If I wait a little while, bite my tongue, and let the story sink in, my narcissism fades to a gentle murmur. I imagine myself having dinner with friends at a sidewalk cafe. I imagine being at a concert. I imagine walking home on a warm evening. I imagine that moment when it all turns from routine to terrifying. I feel the solidarity of my humanness, sadness and sympathy and anger all at once. I feel empathy.
There is the sentiment that we can let the victims and families know we’re sorry for their loss, but those words fall on grieving, frightened and mostly, deaf ears. I am sorry about the loss of human life anywhere, but saying it to the internet has all the veracity of signing an office sympathy card, accompanied by those trite phrases we use, so that we don’t look like assholes. You’re in our thoughts. Wishing you comfort. Our prayers are with you. I don’t want to fill the air with my nothingness.
The voices of outrage come out in full force, relentless anger directed at them, at us, at anything that’s a moving or easy target. Presidential candidates fall over themselves trying to prove how many people they’d kill in response to this nightmare. Political idealogues and bigots of every persuasion grab hold of the pain and anxiety in vain attempts to support their own version of hate.
This is not my story. This is not my opportunity. This is not my moment on the stage. This is my time to listen, to learn, and to try to comprehend other people’s stories. I don’t stay silent because I don’t care. I stay silent because, at this moment, nothing I say will make as much difference as listening.