New Normals

Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

We’re going to Rome next week and I couldn’t be more excited by the trip. The Vatican right after Easter and during a Jubilee year – how gorgeous that will be. And the coliseum and forum with the always-curious Jacques? How fun.

Our friends think we’re crazy. “But, Brussels…!” they say.

Yes – European capitals are on high alert and Rome with an open-door Pope and the world’s Catholics in attendance could be the target of more terror-minded young men. But numbers don’t lie and statistics tell us the most dangerous part of the trip will be the drive to the airport from our home.

Some have said that we should all just stay home and focus locally on curing our planet of anger and hate. Practice peace by planting a garden. Recycle and walk more. Be kind to our neighbors. No argument that these are good things to practice in our own hometowns.

But this is a small planet we inhabit and I believe our ability to understand and practice tolerance requires interaction. Face time with real people speaking a language of compassion and interest that transcends mother tongues. I simply don’t know how we can survive if we don’t recognize that all humans share this planet – its oceans, its ever-shifting continents, and the skies. Sharing those resources means we really can’t ignore each other, nor should we.  

I heard an impassioned speech by a sprightly work colleague arguing why Americans should stay out of the rest of the world. That every time we get involved – even when it’s with the best of intentions, we make things worse. 

In his opinion, all our do-gooder stuff just creates problems. We go into Africa with public health programs and agricultural training to feed the population and now people in Africa are living longer and we’re stressing the planet’s ability to feed all the humans. And that competition for increasingly scarce resources causes more war and strife and hatred. We should just stay out and let them fend for themselves.

How can that be right?

I know that our frame of reference as Americans shifted forever following September 11th. It was clear that the way we thought, the way we approached our work and life was going to change, but in the middle of it all we just chanted “new normal” to describe life in America after the knowledge that we were not immune to terrorist rages.

The change that happened in 2001 was profound, sudden, and surprising. But it shouldn’t have been. It was not the first time this country had experienced seemingly senseless attacks. The difference was that the events of the 1980s and 1990s were led by homegrown attackers and somehow didn’t create such a sense of vulnerability. Events like Ruby Ridge and Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, followed by Columbine and then a list of shootings in schools, churches, and synagogues were carried out by disaffected young men who were identifiably Americans. Somehow we discounted those attacks while elevating attacks by those we see as “others”. Just last year, the attack in San Bernadino was seen as more threatening than the one that took place a month earlier at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College.

Why is that? Is it that we discount the impact of disaffected young American men while we elevate the effect of disconnected young Arab men? Aren’t they all somehow similar – living with such skewed values that killing innocents – mothers, children, men going home – is believed to be a worthwhile goal?  I struggle with the idea that it’s ok to call for a war on Islam, while seeking mental health counseling for young Americans.

There is evil in the world and we’re seeing its face all too often now. But there is also goodness in the world and that is what I seek through travel and engagement. Good hearts and souls are alive and well in Europe, in Brussels, and in Rome.

I’ll never forget that period of quiet living right after 9/11 in the otherwise busy flight path of MSP airport. It was the absence of what we took for granted on outside evenings on the porch – the coming and going of planes representing travel to other parts and places. It felt so isolating to realize that our access to the world was cut off by hatred. I don’t ever want to feel that sense of separation again.