Several years ago, one afternoon at work, I was reading an article on The Guardian about the Arab Spring and the violent reprisals various Arab governments launched, especially in Syria. The specificity of the memory — where I was, what it was about — is striking. What followed has stayed with me.
There was a video embedded in the article. Street fighting. I thought nothing of it. I clicked play.
The cameraman had positioned himself near a firefight. Burned out, shot up cars. Protesters under fire.
I watched a protester’s head explode. It was there. Then it wasn’t. My brain couldn’t quite process this. I jumped back in the video. There he was. His head was there. And then it wasn’t.
I watched it a third time. I was really struggling to understand what I saw.
I’m not naive or sheltered. I understand the realities of death. I’ve killed orcs with head shots in video games. Nothing in the video was surprising. Yet I had a difficult time wrapping my head around it. Maybe it was the darkness of it, the suddenness of it. I was profoundly shaken. I watched a man die in the most brutally definitive way possible.
Some of you know that I have an interest in Yemen’s civil war and the plight of Syrian refugees. But I have to be careful in how I track these stories, lest I emotionally torture myself. I want to do something. There are people hurting. There are children dying. There’s not a thing I can do. And Twitter is a terrible curse; a search on “Yemen” brings up distressing image after distressing image. I won’t even begin to describe some of the human-inflicted horrors on other human beings I’ve seen. I carry those with me. Sometimes just thinking of them leaves me shattered.
How can we hate other human beings so? I fear there’s no hope for us at all. That we’re nothing more than an accident of time and evolution. That we’re nothing more than a blight. We’re capable of so much. We’ve built amazing things. We’ve created works of art and literature and music that touch the heart. We’ve gone to Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto. We know there are billions of other worlds out there; we may not be the only intelligent life in the universe.
Yet we, as a species, insist on inflicting terrible harm on our own kind.
And that pains me.
When I’ve said that if I won the lottery I’d give the money to MSF and UNICEF and other relief charities, I’m not kidding. That is what I would really do. And then I would probably disappear into the desert in a misguided attempt to do something meaningful, something that matters.
So it was that yesterday Sesame Street posted a picture in response to Nice of Ernie hugging Mr. Snuffleupagus.
— Sesame Street (@sesamestreet) July 15, 2016
I cried. I sat at my desk and the tears streamed. There are times, times that are all too frequent now, when the world is too big and too painful for many of us to cope. Where there’s too much hurt, where we feel isolated and powerless and alone. Where it becomes overwhelming. In moments like that, we need reminders of our interconnectedness, of what we have in common. We need a reminder that we’re not alone, that what truly matters is the love we have for one another. Not just for our friends and families, but for strangers, too.
I needed to see Ernie and Snuffy yesterday. I needed them to help me through the pain and the shock I carried. I needed them to help me cry.
“Do not fear to weep,” Gandalf said, “for not all tears are evil.”