Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Beowulf, bombings, and history

I have been studying the Angles and Saxons as I prepare to teach Beowulf in the spring.  It has been far more interesting to study this as an adult than it was as a teenager.

In the wake of the ISIS bombings, I have found myself thinking on Beowulf and what life was like for people during that age.  I think Thomas Hobbes' phrasing says it best:  "nasty, brutish and short."  The short part was a blessing, it seems to me, given that they were people who only barely survived given any normal, uneventful day, but who were also regularly faced with intruding hoards of violent barbarians with whatever system of protection they had overturned and dismantled.  Disease and wolves lurked at every turn as well.

How many people in the Middle East and Africa live like Angles and Saxons every day in this modern world, I ask myself.

Somehow, it has been helpful for me to know this, to remind me that the upheaval in the world is not new.  It is not unique to 2015.  It has always been this way.  There have always been barbarians.  There have always been people savagely killed.  Knowing this has given me some strange comfort.  Life continues, even if it is without you....or me.

The difference is that in modern life I know, I am reminded almost constantly, of the nastiness, brutishness and shortness of others' lives.

During the spring semester, I am also planning to teach 1984, so I have the idea of a society in which there are no rights swirling in my head, where every decision is rooted in fear, thereby stripping people of their ability to think, to feel, to be who they are.  Sounds a bit like Beowulf---a people living in fear---and yet one was written in 1000 AD and the other in 1948.

In an effort to stem fear, we turn to absolutes.  This is the right way; that is the wrong way.  Even something as seemingly absolute as "Thou shall not kill" isn't really absolute, is it, at least in my non-God understanding of life?  Would it be absolutely wrong for a Syrian father to kill someone in an effort to save and protect his child?

I cannot say it is absolutely safe or unsafe to bring Syrian refugees into the US any more than I can say it is absolutely right or wrong to do so.  I cannot absolutely classify Muslims as terrorists when I see so many school children (or moviegoers or grocery shoppers) in the US  being held captive or being shot by non-Muslim gunmen who are mentally ill or harboring a grudge against whatever it is they harbor a grudge against.

There are degrees of terrorism.  Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Nigeria suffer extreme degrees.  The US, at least at this day and time, suffers to a lesser degree.

Parisians were attacked by fundamentalist Muslims, but Muslims are regularly attacked by fundamentalist Muslims.  Muslims are not dangerous, but I very much think fundamentalism can be. Even if it is the Christian version.
Especially if it is the political version.

Fear is tyranny, and it is why terrorists utilize it so effectively.  The amygdala is the most primitive system in our brains, which is why it is our automatic "go to" response when we feel threatened.  It takes a considerable amount of effort on the part of the frontal cortex to respond in any other way.

There is very little I can do except learn....

*by listening to what secularism has meant to "others" in Paris and how this can foment anger.

*by learning about Molenbeek in Belgium.

*by seeing why Syrians are fleeing their country.

*by being reminded of other victims of rampant genocide and how that played out.

Since I am going to die, by the hands of terror or natural causes, I hope I have compassion in my heart when it happens.  

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