As far as I can see, KNOWLEDGE—learning things in the world and about the world, discovering news and history and fun facts on the web—it only serves three purposes:
- It changes who we are.
- It changes what we do. (often intermingling with 1.)
- It distracts us. It distracts us from the yawning ennui and from the gaping glimpse into hell that our life often seems to be on a day-to-day basis.
And let’s face it. When we surf the web, it’s usually # 3, right? What was the last time you read something on the web and it fundamentally changed who you are? When was the last time it changed you, for good and for real, even a little bit? And how often does what you encounter on the web even impact your actions—oh, and no, surfing to another website because the first website has planted that idea in your head does not count as action. Nor does the impulse to shop, eat, drink, or indulge in onanism, because of something you saw on the web. I am talking about real, outside the box, making a difference sort of action. And so I am guessing that, as heartbroken as you feel about what happened in Paris, you are not upset to the point where you are going to commit yourself to being changed by it. From it. Because of it. And I am guessing that, as heartbroken as you are, it’s not going to change the way you live your life—the things you do every day. So unless you plan to take this incident, or some equally hellish conglomeration of incidents like it, yes, unless you plan to let it CHANGE WHO YOU ARE (NUMBER ONE), or CHANGE WHAT YOU DO in life (NUMBER TWO), then you should acknowledge it for what it is—a distraction. A distraction that makes you feel things, and think a rush of thoughts, and chat heatedly with the other distracted people around you—but still, it remains, nonetheless, a mere distraction from the life you live. And don’t you owe it to the dead to thank them for that? After all, the French invented the term “ennui”, so if anybody would respect a ruthless approach to escaping it, it would be the French.
Let’s face it. We all heard the about the attack. We saw the headlines, we read the stories, we watched the footage, and we soaked in those photographs--moments in time capturing horror, and pain, and sometimes heroism. (This is about the time we could have started asking ourselves the serious question of what were we going to do about it?) But no, then, oh then, we moved onto the forums, the comments. Understandable, yes, because hearing what everybody else is thinking and feeling makes us feel less alone, and the last thing we want to experience as World War III is breaking out, is that sense of being completely on your own.
But the forum comments were predictable too, and like anything that is predictable and redundant, it was rather a waste of our time. I did a highly scientific analysis of every comment made on all the forums in the world and here is what I gleaned: in addition to about 4000 “OMD’S”—this is a French story, after all—33 percent blamed the Bleeding Heart Liberals (letting those damn refugees in), about another third blamed the Heartless Conservatives (damned imperialism, ramming the American flag up the sphincter of every country in the Middle East), a predictable 17 percent blamed Obamacare, 11 percent had a direct line to God Almighty and told us what He wanted us to know about it, and about 5 percent reassured us it was OK, it was going to be fine, because they knew a way that we could make $80 dollars an hour on the internet, first week out of the gate, just as that forum poster’s neighbor and sister-in-law had been doing, to hear them tell it. And on and on the comments go.
Really? Seriously? Isn’t it starting to feel like you are wasting your time? Like you could be doing something more productive in the world right about now? Most of us passed the point of keeping up with current events, of doing diligence as citizens of the world, but we just kept going. Surfing. The average American spends between 9-11 hours a day plugged into the world wide web. That’s millions upon millions of human hours frittered away every day. Imagine, just imagine what would happen if we all committed to taking just a fraction of those hours and used them to volunteer for something—a suggestion harder and harder to deflect with excuses, since you can even volunteer for things while sitting online. The net result would be billions of volunteer hours making the world a better place.
What does it really mean when we spend time perusing the coverage of the Attacks on Paris? I’d say it’s the cyber equivalent of rubbernecking at an accident. We all know there are three kinds of people who pass scenes of bloody carnage on the public roads: People who give the dead and dying and injured their privacy. People who have an attraction to gore. And people who look, but when they look, they are flooded with a sense of “There but for the grace of God go I”--and it jolts them into realizing that it can all be over at any moment, and it makes them a little more grateful for their own life, and the people in it. So Paris is like bloody carnage in the middle of the road: are you going to use Paris as an opportunity to change, and to embrace the frailty of life, the ephemeral nature of being, and to then live life more intensely? To love more deeply? Or are you going to rubberneck, drive on home, fix a cocktail, and watch “Wheel of Fortune”? Or whatever it is that you do when you are deep in the throes of not changing a damn thing about your feeble little existence.
So let’s return to our premise: PARIS ATTACKS AS DISTRACTION: I maintain that unless you do one of these things—to let the Attacks on Paris change you, for real this time, and to change what you do as you move through the world, to let it change the choices you make …and then, from that, you commit to going out, on a regular basis, and doing your part, however humble, to alleviate the troubles in your own little corner of the world--unless you honestly commit to doing one of these things, as a result of the horror you have watched unfold in France, then just as will so many of the critically wounded, the news stories will die over the coming days, and your life will go on just the way it was before. And we will all go back to watching Trump bloviate and sending each other Youtubes of cute animals wearing Christmas hats. So the question is, if you truly want to respect the dead, if you want to take the advice that they surely would give you … if they could come back, like Marley’s ghost … it would be “What are you going to do today, to make the world a better place, to ease somebody’s pain? What are you going to do, to acknowledge that life is fleeting and precious?” If nothing else, you could get from this disaster a renewed resolve to change a relationship in your life that needs some love and attention, to fix a relationship that is broken . . . you become determined to fix it, because you are reminded of how short life is, how fragile it can be. Don’t you think that would be one of the most urgent and heartfelt messages of the people killed in the Attacks on Paris, if the dead could speak?
I, for one, on the anniversary of the Attacks on Paris, plan to spend a few moments every year remembering Big Ben. No, not the clock in London. A little boy. I learned about Big Ben because he was born on the same date as the attacks, but a few years before, and it would be a damnable shame if this brave little child were forgotten by the world—if his tiny life and tragic death were overshadowed by the very real tragedy that cost the lives of dozens of innocents in the City of Lights. Ben Bowen was a little boy I never knew; he earned his nickname because his courage and his smile were both so big. (http://www.bens-story.com) It was about the time that he was one year and a half old that he was diagnosed with a horrific brain tumor, aggressive and usually untreatable. He fought hard, and his parents were there for him every step of the way, as was St. Jude’s Hospital. We do not euthanize children, of course, but in Ben’s case, it meant a torturous end: His neuropathy was so bad, his body so sensitive, that his parents could not even hold him in the final weeks, and he was regurgitating his own fecal matter. Still, through it all, he found the strength to smile. And what a smile. A smile that made the clouds part. . .
We cannot measure the worth of a human life, but I know this: certainly Big Ben is no less worthy of being commemorated, just because he did not make a headline. Sometimes, nowadays we get told what to care about. The ongoing crisis, the tragedy, the sadness, the agony that is life every day for some people, we don’t do anything about, because it hasn’t been put right in our face. Because it’s not a headline. Because it hasn’t gone viral. Because the story is hidden. (That, I think, is something we must be careful about. . . some compassion requires a very circumlocutious journey. As Tolkien so pithily reminds us: “Not all who wander are lost…” ) Ben was two and a half when he was laid to rest, after having been made an honorary firefighter—which was appropriate, after all, since his father was one of the firemen rescuing people at 9-11. We could choose to honor what would surely be in the spirit and wishes of the Paris attack victims by volunteering at a local children’s hospital, or supporting a place like St. Jude’s. It would be something. There is always something you can do. More than commenting on the forums.
So, that’s about it. Seriously. Now it’s up to you. But you are STILL WORRIED ABOUT PARIS: Relax, if you can. Paris doesn’t need you. The planet is praying for Paris, supplies are pouring in, world leaders are talking, action is being taken. The best doctors are there, administering. Paris doesn’t need you. Americans are very good at stepping up when things go wrong in the world, and that’s great, but the infrastructure is already in place: as a people, we give away billions and billions, and we never shirk our duty when there is a disaster in the world. The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders gear up for this kind of thing, and following on the heels of these organizations are literally dozens of other groups ready to lend a hand. So yes, while your prayers are welcome, what is really needed in the world is that we use this disaster as a time for personal introspection, so that when the future comes--which it will have, by the time I am done writing this sentence--YOU are not still part of the problem.
Helen Keller, never one to whine and make excuses, put it as eloquently as I have ever heard: “It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the Devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.” Yes, Americans always step up at times like this, but it usually seems to manifest itself in making shrines out of teddy bears and sending large quantities of gaily festooned gift baskets filled with toiletries and chocolate and fruit and cheese. Again, not to worry. The Parisians, always resourceful ever since their part in the Resistance, have that covered. Not too far from the scene of the tragedy, they have a shrine, ready made, for remembrance and mourning the dead: It’s called Notre Dame. And as for the fruit and cheese basket, for God’s sake, people, don’t send them any American cheese. The French are depressed enough already.
By Meg Langford
Author of “The Little Book of Lynching”, “Liberty’s Tyranny”, and more.