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November 25, 2015

How To Make Meaning in a World Where Paris (9/11, Beirut & Kenya) Can Happen at Any Moment.

911 fireman grief

The world is a wild, incoherent place.

I sometimes think of certain statistics—every four minutes a baby is born, or every nine seconds a woman is beaten—and I consider them in light of whatever everyday movement I am making at the time.

How is it possible that I am taking out the trash or gazing out the window when, simultaneously, all over the world these gruesome and awesome acts are taking place?

It’s unfathomable.

As I plunged, head-long, into a weekend of creative deadlines—co-writing and directing a friend’s solo show that goes up in a week, wrangling the equipment and pruning the final script for a do-it-yourself midnight video shoot—I took breaks to tune into the internet and social media, knowing what was happening in Paris, and all around the world, and seeing everyone’s emotions and reactions.

At the same time, I saw brand new baby photos and wedding pictures posted. Yes, while random carnage was happening, babies were being born and people were getting married.

Was it wrong of them to exult in their personal triumphs while these massacres were happening?

Was it wrong of me to be so consumed by the personal creative projects I had committed to that I couldn’t even sense whether I had a personal reaction to the violence that was occurring?

I kept having a recurring thought. At the time of 9/11 I was living in New York City, a few blocks south of the Twin Towers when the second plane hit. I remember the fear. And I remember the articles and conversations at dinner parties about how to handle it, how to respond to it in the weeks and months afterward.

What was the right way to go about living in the new context?

There were stories about English concert-goers during World War II who would remain in their seats at the symphony while air-raid sirens were going off and bombs were dropping.

“F**k it!” they chose to say. “This is my one life, and I am choosing the damn symphony over running like a terrified mouse into its hole. Kill me, if you must, but I am at the symphony.”

I so admired those people. Given my panicked reaction on 9/11—when some people were running toward the burning towers, and I was frantically running away, avoiding all landmarks, and hitch-hiking my way back uptown—I wasn’t so sure that I wouldn’t choose cowering in relative safety in a bomb shelter.

But this weekend those stories came back to me.

What are we meant to be doing in this life? What does it mean that all around the world, every single second, whether it makes the news or not, terrible things are happening alongside all the beautiful, life-affirming events?

On 9/11 I escaped the panic-laden confines of my apartment, where my brother and our roommate were hunched in front of the endless television coverage of what had just happened. I needed to do something that, if this were the last night of my life, would connect me, not to my own private fear, but to something bigger—something vaster. To a place of meaning.

I went to the park and lay down on a stone wall overlooking the Hudson River. As soon as my head hit the warm stone, the dark closed in around me and I found myself face-to-face with the stars in the night sky. “Ah, the immutable stars!” I heard the words in my head, as if they had been broadcast there by my soul, who recognized home in them.

I felt immediately better. Rightly placed in the world, regardless of the human insanity and melodrama and criminal violence going on in the world around me.

The natural world of the outdoors and the cosmos was the portal to the Divine for me in that moment. Without realizing it, I was craving connection to the place from whence I had come and would be—whether on this night or some other—returning.

Finding our own meaning looks different to each of us, and perhaps even different at every moment. As does our access point to something greater than ourselves.

Growing up, art was the symbol of the Divine in my house.

I was raised in an atheist home, but when my dad turned on opera full-blast, you knew he was communing with something far vaster than the seen.

Events like the ones of this past weekend give us the opportunity to both discover the meaning we’re automatically making, without even being aware of it, and to connect to the vastness of the mystery of life.

When people post their perspectives about Paris on Facebook—saying we need to know what’s happening in Beirut and Baltimore, too; or, we need to go get these suckers, because they’re coming for us; or, all that all the world needs is love—they are describing the very personal way in which they make meaning out of what happens in the world. It’s how they create themselves in response to what happens in the world.

This is the act of finding our own meaning. And you can’t get it wrong. People may disagree with your meaning. But the most important piece of creating meaning is knowing, consciously, that you are doing it.

Understanding this might help us to see the perspectives of other people, and not shoot them down, but to ponder them, step inside them, absorb aspects of them.

As I read all the articles and posts, I have related to all of them. I have heard my inner nun praying for compassion and love and peace, my inner warrior crying out for vengeance, the world citizen in me clamoring for the equality of the multitude of violences we perpetuate against each other.

I remember how after 9/11 all I could do with myself was bake cookies. All the meaning seemed to have been washed away.

But when I made eye-contact with those immutable stars—as when my dad turned up the volume on his favorite opera, or those London dwellers stayed in their seats at the symphony, while bombs dropped all around them—a deeper connection occurred.

I invite us all to discover that place for ourselves, inside ourselves.

I invite everyone to continue the conversations and our participation on the world stage—whether that is by sending prayers, becoming social activists, donating money to help people in need or questioning ourselves and each other on where these terrible acts originate.

Through our participation, politically or simply in the collective unconscious, we are, at least partly, one with them.

But also, let us not forget that place inside ourselves, where the meanings are.

I’m butchering Emily Dickinson here,

“Heavenly Hurt it gives us; We can find no scar; but internal difference, where the Meanings are.”

Acknowledging ourselves as the makers of meaning in our lives, is a place of spiritual empowerment.

And allowing the door to the Mystery, to the Divine, to swing open can bring us immediate, sure sanctuary in a wild, incoherent world.

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Relephant read:

Healing Quotes for Times of Crisis.

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Author: Maia Macek

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

Image: Stephen Wackschal/ Pixoto

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Maia Macek