My mother's birthday is 11 June. This year, 11 June was also the day that our dear friend Nikki got married and where I was given the honour of performing their ceremony. Hell, our cats turned two years old on 11 June. It was a day for celebration. I wanted to say so much to my mother, but I only found the time to give her a short phone call. But her voice on the other end of the line was light, filled with her contentment and the lightness of years that I can only hope are growing lighter on her shoulders. Mom, I thought of you all day, and all night.
But when we woke up the next day, we got news that in Orlando, Florida, 49 people had been killed by a man who had stormed a club and held them hostage in one more act of hatred and violence. One more person for whom we will have to find a reason to explain his acts and whose ancestry will in some way become proof positive that what he is, and what he has done is some way an invasion of a foreign presence in what was once a great America. Somehow with a social media feed that was marred in tragedy, I would not bring myself to celebrate my mother's birthday, because I could not risk being told that I was trivializing such sadness by not focusing on it. And I couldn't do that to my mother.
You see, as the years go by and my distance grows I feel even deeper inside of me and know that I will always be American, and I learn to carry it with me as neither a burden nor a badge. It is me, and I am it. So I understand that right now, America seems to be spiraling out of control, and that the world seems to be stockpiling its forces against you, against us. I know that you're looking for a reason.
The thing is, everything is so damn random. It's the randomness that's got us so wrong these days, what feels so different. We cannot count on anything, even death, because we have no assurances that it will not come tomorrow or in an hour from now or seventy years from now and we don't know if we'll be alone, surrounded by pain. And I am terrified, almost always, that my mother and father and brother will be hurt, that somehow they will be in the wrong place and there will be no way to stop it. I am terrified that they will feel pain and in that moment I will not be with them. I am terrified of the pain of their potential loss and that fear sounds an alarm in my ears that is at times deafening beyond all other things and leaves me impotent, powerless. I am powerless to stop them, to help them.
In 2001, my mother called me at the guesthouse where I was living in Bangkok and told me that the World Trade Center was gone. My brother told me that even though he knew it was wrong, he couldn't help but look at every person and wonder if they wanted to blow something else up. He cried when he said it because it pained him not only to fear but also to doubt. To this day, his fear and his pain remain with me, and that giant hole where my heart used to be remains empty. I cannot talk about that day because of everything that we lost. My Aunt Chris worked across the street from those buildings and I cannot think of her without thinking of the pain that her loss would have brought me.
I fear pain more than anything else, I fear the idea that my loved ones will suffer pain and I will be powerless to stop it. I fear hearing screams in my head that haven't even happened yet, and that fear has at so many times stopped me from actually doing the task of living.
That's the problem with fear. See we can live with fear, but we can't live well with it. We can't perform that task of living well if everything operates from the one place within us that tries to shut out the sheer randomness of everything and refuses to turn the light off because of all the demons that darkness brings.
And America, I know that you are scared. Believe me, I know it so well. You are looking at people on line with you at the supermarket, waiting for the bus, dancing next to you and you are wondering if one of you is the one who will end the other. And that is terrifying, I know. And now you're looking for any way out of it because it is the only way that you think you can go on, because if there is order and homogeneity and sameness then it might all go back to normal. You're praying for normal in a world of chaos and what's worse, you find yourselves faced with more chaos that normal and some part of your brain is telling you that to survive you must suspect and you must suspect everyone who doesn't look like you because with no other information that is the only way.
This feeling you feel, this overwhelming fear that is slowly morphing into paralysis and telling you that hatred is vigilance, that vigilance brings order and order breeds safety, this is driving you to say and do and think things that your rational self might have otherwise dismissed. The sense of urgency you feel is telling you to protect yourselves at all cost, and whatsoever the sacrifice. That trauma is numbing you to reason and telling you that now is not the time for political correctness, for compassion, for forgiveness. Now is the time to act, and act fiercely. Keep out intruders, corral them from the inside, make them aware that difference will not be tolerated because difference breeds chaos.
The cruel irony is that we are now finally beginning to understand what much of the world already knows. We run towards neo-patrimonial strongmen and authoritarian father figures that tell us how they will keep us safe by casting out the light, and we do not ask them to tell us how or at what cost. This is how most of the world has been forced to live, and why indeed this kind of demagoguery continues apace. I often talk with my father about the unlikely success of Mr. Trump, a man I remember from my childhood in New York and his insistence on pink marble office buildings. I have often found it baffling that his voice should resound with such a large strata of the public. It is the same voice that I have heard over and over again in countries throughout the world, where people live under regimes that spy on them, that commodify them and then devalue them and continue to do so because these regimes provide the bare minimum of what it means to survive.
We Americans have never reasoned with this last common denominator in mind. We vote with our wallets, and that has done the job of making us feel safe for some years now. We have never been faced with the idea of a prolonged existential threat, even in those darkest days of 2001 when that hole smoldered with everything we once loved. But now, we think of the immediate, we think of the now and we are terrified. Our reactions to that trauma are forming us into exactly the kind of place that people normally leave in order to find refuge. We are turning against ourselves, eating ourselves from the inside.
I spent many years in many dangerous places. I used to send my mother emails and I know now that she must have held onto these and prayed that they were not the last words she heard from me, and I know that she was justified in thinking that. I often think the same thing now when I speak to her, despite my best efforts. I stand across and ocean and wonder if American Exceptionalism may be coming to an end, in the worst way possible: instead of exporting those things which we believed to be our greatest strengths, we have succumbed to the murky tides of violence, those tides from which our own shores have been long believed to be safe.
Perhaps now we might understand why people, every day, risk their lives in barely breathing boats and along impossible routes; perhaps now we might have a better insight into why people try at every cost to find someplace where they might be able to hold their children not for dear life but simply for comfort, out of joy. We have not yet reached that point, but we have begun to inch ever closer to the kind of daily life that measures success in survival, and in which we will make pacts with the devil in order to breathe easier for one moment. We are not yet there, but the slope is slippery, and we stand perilously close to the precipice. America, I know you're scared but believe me when I tell you that it can get worse and if it does, we might not be able to recognize ourselves. The mirror is fogged with our gasping breath.
So we have choices to make, and the choices are both many and few. We can choose all of those things that our basic morality tells us we should do, in varying details: compassion, understanding, forgiveness, solidarity, democracy. Those are real things and they are felt in everyday actions yet they are abstract concepts and they do not make us feel any safer. Nothing I or anyone else can say will change that very honest fact.
But the simple choice is this: to live, and to live well. Dum Vivimus Vivamus, while we live, let us live well. Because for everything that we can do and should do and all of the fighting that is involved in holding on to that thing which still inspires us and which still lives in us, the essence is this, living well. It does not mean affluence, it does not mean arrogance. It does not mean to wave a flag and chant, nor does it mean to build a wall and keep out all of the non-believers. Nor does it mean to hold hands and light candles and pore over countless analyses and rehashings and gory details until our ability to feel is replaced by fatigue. It means to search for what we can, those corners that we can and to live, to make mere existence an impossible option. We must be here for more than existence, because if we become only that then the threat of annihilation becomes and overwhelming burden, impossible to bear whether alone or in great numbers. It is quieter, less demonstrative, less outwardly rewarding. To live well is to live in a bit more silence than that to which we have lately become accustomed.
I won't pretend its an easy thing. It is a task, to live. Of that we all must be sure because it is not a gift, it is not a debt, it is not a promise. Ok maybe it is this as well, all of this but ultimately it is a thing to be done, like all other things. And its not about doing it out of guilt, out of obligation, out of desperation. We do it because it is the thing to be done, like all other things. And like all other things, we must do it well regardless of whether or not anyone else is watching, regardless of whether or not we will be remembered for it. Living well is the only way we get out of this thing with any dignity, the only way that we stay human.
I spent years of my life studying and working in politics, and I believed that my life would not matter unless it was spent in this service. At some point I realized that while I had studied and learned and come to understand a few important things, I had not made my own life better yet I too often gave people lessons on how to make their lives better. I lived in complete opposition to what I advised others to do, and when I realized the folly of it, I could only leave it behind. So I moved to a small town and started to think about how I might carve out that little corner, how I might still connect with and hope to do some good in the world but at the same time make my own life something done well.
I often think about my decision; sometimes it haunts me and leaves me riddled with guilt, other times I am proud of only this. I don't know if I was right, and I don't know if that matters. But I know that when I speak to my mother now, she's happy for me and happier herself. If tomorrow the worst were to happen I know that she would know how much I love her and how much I have tried to live well for her. I will continue to think of 11 June as her day, and now also Nikki's day, because I have to do that.
We have almost no time here, regardless of the climate in which we try to get it all done, and it's all gone so fast. There is no magic formula and no words that heal all of those many wounds, and as much as it pains me to say it, there will always be tragedy and loss to wake up to and that loss will always belong to someone. One day we might be that someone, and there is no way to shore ourselves against that pain. But for now, for while we live, for while we can, let us live well.