by Gary Hall.
‘I don’t know how to feel,’ she said on her way out of chapel. ‘How do I sing praises when I have a headful of horrors from Ukraine?’
This story and these images have invaded imaginations and pounded emotional landscapes. For most of us, these are other people’s horrors, not our own. We are safe, but we still have nightmares. Our children are not being bombed or terrified, but our feelings of relief and gratitude can seem distasteful – unless expressed as responsive action. Affirming and celebrating the love of God can feel crass until we have worked out how to act in relation to other people’s devastation. I think this is what she was saying. Knowing how to feel is tied up with knowing how to act; meaning not just the relatively straightforward business of ordinary human kindness (donations, statements of solidarity, lobbying, prayer and tears, movement of resources from here to there), but the bigger question of how much needs to change. For those of us with choices, is this the moment which demands a greater willingness to be disrupted? Should everyday routine and everyday emotions be suspended, when other people’s everyday living has been so violently ruptured? Are everyday playfulness and joviality just indecent when faced with what we are currently seeing and hearing? Is this sickening episode different from all the previous ones, or the more distant ones?
We didn’t have long to talk, so I am guessing that these are the kinds of things she might have meant when she didn’t know how to feel. She left me wondering about how and when the trauma visited upon other people rightly disrupts our own lives. We have a room, food and friendship if any refugees get this far, and that would be a little disruptive, but also a gift. More poignantly, a young adult asked, ‘Will we be conscripted?’ No, you won’t, I replied. ‘Should we volunteer?’ I didn’t answer that one. Who can say what this moment means for this person?
We might resist any disruption, arguing that disproportionate attention to the actions of a deranged despot only multiplies the loss and amplifies the impact of this invasive violence. Why should even more lives be impacted by this gang of kleptocrats? Besides, in this world there is always horror, somewhere, tearing lives apart – and there is always beauty. There is violence and there is love; cruelty and tenderness and everything in between. Perhaps there will be occasion when you and I also have to make immediate, life-changing decisions about protecting family and friends. Meanwhile, we are working out how to live in ordinary human solidarity, with compassion, without colonising someone else’s misery. It doesn’t help that we are wary of the manipulative power of images, and have already accumulated so many images of other horrors, along with too many questions about what kind of intervention actually makes the right kind of difference for the victims, rather than for ourselves.
How to feel? How to act? Most of the time, those of us blessed with predictability and security don’t experience the questions so intensely. Then the horrors come near, and we are jolted to a new level of attention, revulsion, compassion, rage. We feel with fresh force the weight of Jesus’ question, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ or the implicit question addressed to us by a terrified child huddled in an underground station: ‘And who is my neighbour?’
Blessed are they who can translate feelings into actions with relative spontaneity. Meanwhile, the friend who didn’t know how to feel was struggling to work out the extent to which massive, unspeakable disruptions to other people’s lives might – should? – disrupt her own. When to consider the lilies and birds, and when to stay close to Christ in Gethsemane?
On the road to Holy Week, Christians once again anticipate a re-telling of the violent disruption at the heart of the passion story. At the same time, we are familiar with the idea that God breaks in, irrupts into history, into our lives, as incarnate infant or risen Christ or Pentecostal spirit. Some disruptions are divine and transformative; some can only be described as horrific, demonic. What we may be working out, in those moments when we don’t know how to feel, is the relationship between good and bad disruptions – so our living might express a little of the hope that this earth will be a homeland in which all can dwell in peace, including our enemies.