Reflecting on What Happened in Paris: Rising Above Extremism

I am writing as I process what I heard in the news about the horrific terrorist attack in Paris.  I wrote this on my Facebook but it really hit close to home to learn that they invaded a rock concert and started firing at the people.  A concert!  An occasion to experience live music together is a sacred and safe place for me, I’m sure others who enjoy live music would agree.  I can’t help but tear up when I imagine the shock and horror of being assaulted in that place.

Yes, just like other tragedies, we need to process and move beyond it.  We need to learn and make humanity better.

Extremism doesn’t just happen in Middle East.  Extremism is everywhere.  There are religious extremism in US and Japan.  Extremism is something we the humanity have to grow out of, collectively.

When I think about why people are drawn to extremism, I think of the sense of clarity and purpose.  Extremism is a very black-and-white kind of worldview.  That clarity makes, or rather, caricatures the world into something easy to understand and digest.  And clarity has a lot of power.  A clear sense of purpose can drive a human to take extreme actions.

The modern, internationalized world is a threat to our sense of clarity and identity.  Old rules that worked well in smaller, more isolated communities all the sudden lose their contexts.  Exceptions crop up everywhere.  Religions can no longer claim to be the single owner of the truth.  Even something as fundamental and assumed as gender identity is in question.  A larger, more intertwined world means fewer rules apply to all of us.  It’s hard to know what’s right and wrong.  It’s hard to know who we are.

One way to react to such a trend is to turn to extremism and forcibly enforce a rigid set of worldview and deny all the shades of grey that exist.  This is not something foreign to any of us.  In fact, we all do it at some point in our lives.  Just observe little children.  Their worldview starts out simple.  Their mind has not matured enough yet to take in the complexity and nuances that exist — they have not developed the ability to comprehend that.

I realize I may be grossly simplifying the situation (which again is similar to turning to extremism — as I said, we all do it), but I wonder if extremism is a work of minds that refuse to take in the rich, complex tapestry that is our humanity.  An immaturity.  And if it is, the approach to growing beyond it may have something in common with raising a child.  With patience and forgiveness, you guide a growing mind to gain more exposure to fabrics of life, to make peace with the complexity and uncertainty of it.  Religious extremism loses a reason to exist if people stopped feeling threatened.  Terrorists don’t rationally believe that they can win.  They feel so threatened that they gave up on seeking safety, instead they chose to pursue martyrdom that prove that they were right and the rest of the world are wrong.  I need to study more about the psychology of suicide attacks but from where I am today I can’t think of any other reason to take such extreme actions.

I do have some exposure to the culture that led to kamikaze attacks in Japanese military in the final stages of World War II.  It definitely was a case of extremism, which became engrained in the leadership of the society.  They used many forms of manipulation to coerce vulnerable young minds into performing suicide attacks — the soldiers who did them didn’t necessarily want to do them, but were cornered in such a way that they saw no other option than to volunteer, rather than face the misery of life as a coward and traitor, shamed and ostracized.

We all need to rise above extremism that exist, that childish immaturity that refuses to grow up and gain ability to recognize and make peace with the ambiguous world.  If you think you can swat at the hatred and make it go away, that’s once again yielding to the extremist thinking.  Hatred and retaliation only creates more of itself.  Forgiveness and kindness is our weapon against immaturity.

I do still believe that there are some truly fundamental, universal values that govern all of humanity, and it’s intricately tied with how our instincts and minds to work a certain way.  I am a man in-between two very different cultures with wildly different histories.  But these truths appear to be common:

  1. Unconditional love. A baby does not earn a living, a baby is to be loved for merely existing.  That’s how we are all born, and our needs are one and the same, and it never goes away.  Both a baby that throws tantrum in the middle of the night and keep well-meaning but exhausted parents up all night, and a misguided and brain-washed terrorist who commit acts of mass destruction, need to be loved.  It’s not a matter of deserving or earning, none of us deserve it.  Hatred will stifle the baby’s growth and prove that the terrorist’s worldview is right — the rest of the world are evil and they are martyrs.  A human being needs love, and hatred will simply lose its ground when faced with love.
  2. Forgiveness.  Intimately linked to love, forgiveness is an act borne of our need to be loved, healed and reconciled.  Forgiveness is not just for the forgiven, forgiveness is equally critical to the forgiver.  Forgiveness releases anger from the forgiver’s body and psyche, and anger is a strong emotion that can stay stuck and cause havoc and distort one’s humanity.  Forgiveness can take place only after accepting the past events, processing emotions that came up from them, and making peace with that history.  It’s a necessary step in all healing.
  3. Effort to understand.  Understanding breeds empathy and empathy breeds love, solidarity and forgiveness, as it’s easier to offer such things when you understand.  There are no two same humans in the world and there will never be a time when you can stop your seeking to understand another human being.  As a member of humanity we need to remain vigilant in our quest to understand — more fully and completely, not just intellectually but emotionally as well.  It’s easy to make enemy out of what you don’t understand, it’s harder to feel threatened from what you do understand.  We need to constantly learn and process information, and increase our understanding.

There may be others, but for now those are the three of the universal truths that apply to all of humanity.  I realize that it’s incredibly naïve of me to make such statements — it’s so easy for me to say, I am from two of the most advanced and safest societies in the world, and have  been spared from being personally affected by acts of violence driven by hatred.  I pray I’ll never have to be tested in such a way, but I also think it is fortunate to consider these principles in the relative comfort of safe, peaceful environments — had I been thrown into the thicket of chaos without first having had a secure place in which to ponder and figure these things out, I imagine I would not have had the mental capacity to come to such idyllic point of view.  Some humans have and still come through with these same principles, and they deservedly became known for their visionary acts.  I’m just a fanboy who like to dream big, but I also cherish the fact that I have not lost the ability to dream big.

I am aware of the possibility that some minds may have gone so far astray beyond the bounds of rehabilitation, and that sometimes we have to forcibly protect our loved ones. But even in such scenarios, I feel more sorrow and pity than hatred and anger.

I pray for peace in Paris, I pray for peace in Syria, I pray for peace on earth.  May we learn not to hate those who harm and threaten us.  May we seek to understand, then forgive, then learn to love.   May we learn and grow beyond this strife.

Photo: Christophe Libert