Why do you think it is that we are able to smile?
Have you ever asked yourself that? How are we able to laugh, to feel joy, to love? Why doesn’t sadness last forever? How does one get over any particular tragedy, or even more so, how do we overcome overwhelming tragedy?
These are questions that have been confounding me for some time now, questions I truly never thought I would find an answer to. But life, I’m learning, has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need when you least expect it.
I believe we can only derive an answer from the two concepts of scale and perspective.
My life has not been a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never been one to ask for anyone to feel bad for the things I’ve gone through, and even as I type this out I find myself second guessing including my own personal experiences, but I’ve decided to run toward the things I’m afraid of.
On your mark, get set, go.
When I was a young boy, I remember watching documentaries about great men with my father—men like Martin Luther King Jr., Colin Powell, Jackie Robinson, and Michael Jordan. I remember being so enamored by these men I saw on screen, but even more so by the high regard I could tell my father held them in.
I remember trying to figure out why these guys had movies made about them and not anyone else? Why couldn’t I have a documentary made about me? Without realizing it at the time, I began to envy the men I saw on film. Why were they so famous and not me? Why were they so well-respected and I wasn’t? Why did they get celebrated with such enthusiasm? What was it exactly that made these men different?
The question “why couldn’t I have a documentary made about me” slowly began to morph into “how do I get myself a documentary, how do I become the hero?” The answer, I figured, was the one thing that all these men in all these documentaries had in common, the one thing that I lacked in my own life: struggle.
My life, I decided as a young boy, was way too easy. When I asked mom for mac ‘n cheese for dinner, bless her heart, there existed a solid chance I would have mac ‘n cheese for dinner. When my mom said I could only have one toy at Toys “R” Us I would simply drop the line “but there needs to be a good guy and a bad guy,” and chances were fairly high I’d be walking out with two.
There’s no way I will ever have my own documentary under these conditions, my young naive mind thought.
I remember at night I would get on my knees next to my bed and pray for God to give me struggle. To give me things in life I could overcome, because then, and only then, will I be able to have the same things that the men I looked up to on the screen had. Then I might be able to have my own documentary.
If I knew then what I know now, that one day my prayers would be answered, and with that answer would come the death of the very man I wanted to share my documentary with. With that answer would mean my grandmother would no longer be able to pick up the phone when I called. She would no longer make me breakfast in the middle of the night when I woke her up saying I was hungry when really I just wanted to play. With that answer would come years of hardship and abuse. That I would go through years of questioning my own worth, my own identity, that I would struggle to find acceptance feeling like I could only relate half-way to my friends, then surely I would have thought twice about the words I uttered in the darkness, in prayer, beside my bed those adolescent nights.
The truth about all of this is that my story pales in comparison to that of others around the world. My pain is not greater, my hardship is not harder, my struggle not more unbearable than that of anyone else. Yet, there are times when I find it impossible to smile. There are times when laughter seems like a distant echo coming from the other end of a long, dark cave, only available to the ones who have somehow navigated to the surface. There are times when I find myself in that very cave at such a depth that I even question if the surface exists.
This week I met a political activist from Syria named Bassam al-Ahmad. He came to my civics class to speak about his experience in Syria during the Arab Spring.
For those who don’t already know, “Arab Spring” is a nicely packaged term we use to describe the peaceful protests that started in Tunisia in 2010 which eventually spread to other countries in the region and led to an incredibly complicated war in Syria.
During the Syrian protests, Ahmad was working under the guise of a pro-Assad media company. At this time the media was heavily controlled by the Syrian government and was monitored closely to make sure they were only spreading Assad propaganda. Ahmad, who was college educated and trilingual, used the fact that few people in Syria at that time could read or write in English, or knew what Twitter was to broadcast the atrocities the Assad regime had committed against his people.
In time, the Assad regime caught onto Ahmad’s true intentions, they sent soldiers to storm his media offices with M16s, capturing himself and all of his colleagues both male and female.
After being captured, Ahmad would eventually be transferred to a prison camp in which he would endure some of the most brutal interrogations, living conditions, and tortures I’ve ever heard another man speak of.
Ahmad’s friends and colleagues, people he went to school with, people who grew up in his neighborhoods, people he worked with on a daily basis were either tortured to death or shot and killed in front of his eyes. He talked about how there was little opportunity to shower and very few places to sanitarily use the restroom. He talked about infections and diseases spreading through the camp like a wild forest fire that to this day still effect his body. He spoke of his absolute certainty that he was not going to make it out of that camp alive. He spoke about what it was like to “be in your grave but still alive.”
To be in your grave, but still alive.
It was not Ahmad’s story that struck me the most though, which might seem hard to believe considering the horrific details it included. It was the manner in which he told it: he laughed.
As he was talking to me, he smiled joyfully. He laughed wholeheartedly. He even made jokes about his own capture. He told me about the time he was taken out of the prison camp, one of only three people chosen for reasons he still does not understand, and the first time his blind fold was removed from his eyes. He told me at that moment it had been about 61 days since he had seen the sun, and when his blindfold was taken off, the sun was so bright that he asked his captors to put his blindfold back on, then he laughed as if to say, what a funny irony it is that the moment I get to see is the moment I wish not to.
He told me about the disease and the sanitation of the camp in which he stayed, he described himself as “stinky” with a great big smile, and talked about how big and bushy his beard and hair was when he got out, showing me with his hands how long his hair had gotten, as he laughed.
At the end of this conversation I was asked if I had any questions for Ahmad. I shook my head no, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have any questions. In fact, I did have questions, and the questions I had have haunted me days after our encounter.
How is it that a man can see so much pain, can go through so much overwhelming adversity, such tragedy, and still find it within himself to laugh, to smile, and to even poke fun of the events he found himself in at his direst moments?
How can a man who has already been in his own grave find it within himself to once again live?
Then, I saw a rose.
Imagine a dead flower in a flower bed. Imagine all you can see from your current perspective is that dead flower. The flower, hanging limply, colors fading, pedals rotting—that would indeed be a sad picture.
Now, imagine that you take a step backwards, then you will realize that the dead flower exists in a bed of flowers that are still vibrant and alive. But take a step back further and you will realize that that flower bed exists in a forest that hosts so many more smells and colors and wildlife than the flowerbed could ever muster.
Take a step back even further still, and you will see that that forest exists on a continent that houses so many different histories, and cultures, and people from all walks of life. Zoom out once more and you will see that every flower, and every tree, and every person exists on a comparatively small blue and green speck of dust that rotates around a comparatively huge burning golden star.
Take one step back further still and you will see that the now small in comparison golden star is just one of thousands of stars burning with other specks of dust rotating around them throughout the cosmos.
Can you see what our current perspective now does to our one original dead flower?
I don’t want to compare my own life to Ahmad’s, but I do believe that we have both been through a similar process to find the surface of our own cave—just on different scales.
It might seem as though in broadening our perspective this far—to numerous stars burning in a multiverse—we could conclude that nothing in our life really matters. Every war that has ever been fought and won, every extinction that has come and gone, every king that has lived and died, every policy, every government, every regime, every love story, every bad grade, every breakup, every lost loved one has all taken place on this tiny speck floating around one particular star. Everyone lives and dies, so why should anything in our lives matter?
But follow me back from our current universal perspective to that of our single dead flower. Can’t you see now what a miracle it is that this flower even exists? Can’t you see how special it is that we are able to look upon it even if it looks differently from the others? Can’t you see the comedy in the idea that someone would sit for hours or even days in despair over the death of a flower that once lived?
When I was speaking to Ahmad, spoke about how he thought that everyone should experience what he has, not because he wants everyone to go through the hardship, but so everyone “would know.”
I never asked him exactly what it is that he wishes we could all know, but I would hypothesize that what he wishes us to know would be along these lines:
That you are only truly enlightened once you are living in your own grave and realize that your grave is not the most important thing.
That you can harvest so much hatred in your heart that you wish death upon someone but that is also not the most important thing.
That once you reach the limits of our human perspective you will realize that the most important thing is to simply smile, to laugh, to love.
Our love as human beings remains relevant even from the perspective of the sun.
Wars shrink, hate shrinks, hardships shrink, disagreements, politics, bad grades, relationship problems, loss—that all shrinks into oblivion. What stays the same size is the love we have for the people around us, the love we have for ourselves, and the love we have for the flower, both before it dies, and after.
Ahmad has taught me this:
It is a testament to the amazing human spirit that we can broaden our perspective enough to realize that nothing at all matters—except for the things that do.
Author: Zach Barlow
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren