Like most of us in Sri Lanka, I have gone through many emotions these last 5 days, since the devastating Easter Sunday attack on our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our freedom. Disbelief was the first. Incomprehension followed fast. Then grief rising from heartbreak. Then anger aroused by fear. Underlying all of these emotions was an inability to feel these feelings fully.
I was also numb.
The last 4 weeks I have been penning an article about a recent realisation of what I thought was my superpower—stoicism. I discovered this ‘superpower’ on a recent 44 km, 2-day hike in the Knuckles range. I was the least fit and struggled the most. But I kept on going. I realised this was true until the completion of my doctorate too, these last 7 years. Even when the path is dark and uncertain, even when I am fatigued, I keep going. Because I must.
The root of Stoicism comes from as far back as 301 BC, and in its current usage means “determined not to complain or show your feelings especially when something bad happens to you”. This is a simplistic definition of a much deeper philosophy and way of living. One of the most appealing ideas in stoicism is that we are responsible for our own human flourishing. Whilst we cannot control external events, we can choose how we respond.
Today, along with stoicism, I will add resilience to my arsenal of superpowers.
As human beings, we are emotionally complex beings. We can hold more than one feeling at the same time. Our resilience is measured by our emotional agility. Our wellbeing demands that we feel. Our mental wellbeing rests in our ability to move through these emotions to emotions that hold us and nurture us in the long run. I have to feel the pain for those we have lost, for the loss of a way of life we have taken for granted. I have to feel the fear I have for our little island nation. I have to awaken the righteous anger to stand up to a few who would dare threaten my home.
And today I am going to call on the spring of hope that lies buried deep under the rubble and lives of the destroyed churches and hotels that I have been carrying in my heart.
I am going to reach out so that others may know I am buried under these. I am going to speak up so that others may hear me. I will be saved, so that I may save others. We cannot do this alone, we have to save each other together.
And it is this slipperiness of this togetherness, that especially troubles me today.
Whilst there are thankfully only a few reported violent incidents against the Muslim community, the emotional violence is spreading fast. This emotional violence comes in insidious ways that can easily be transformed into violence, with just the right bit of stoking from our political leaders, who seem only interested in furthering their political interest in an Election year. I have heard conversations in our own social circles of asking people not to buy goods from Muslim traders. One of my clients, of a large conglomerate is troubled by the communal disharmony that is growing in some of the offices. Staff, executives and managers refusing to take direction and leadership from Managers from the Muslim community, eying them with suspicion, or not meeting their eyes at all. These insidious reactions are hard to report, hard to call out, hard to stop spreading. These forms of violence are social memes, easily spread.
The fear and the misplaced shame our Muslim sisters and brothers are carrying is seen on social media. Many of my Muslim friends are posting and writing, showing their solidarity with those who have been lost and affected by the Easter Sunday Attack.
They have lost too. We have all lost.
Whilst the attacks predominantly targeted Christians attending churches, these terrorists didn’t discriminate when they attacked the hotels. In one of the hotels, a number of employees we lost to the bomb attack were from the Muslim community. They, like many of the other who reported to work that morning, was like everyone else that Easter Sunday, getting on with their daily lives, the way we have done for the past 10 years. Eating breakfast, sleeping in late, doing their weekly marketing, going to their places of worship, worrying about the washing to be finished for the week. Normal. Ordinary. Not terrorists. Not murderers.
By my spiritual practice, I think of myself as a Buddhist. But I do not identify with any of the hateful rhetoric and violence carried out by some extremist factions of Buddhist monks or community. So far, I still feel safe, because I am able to be Buddhist and still live without being persecuted by another community or be identified with any extremist Buddhist factions. Reading and hearing what my Muslim friends are saying I don’t think they have the same feeling of safety or security. On top of the continued threat of more attacks by a terrorist group, they now have to fear from their own neighbours.
In an article in The Hindu (April 24, 2019) a member of the Kattankudy Mosque Federation and Urban Council is quoted “We feel a sense of inexplicable guilt. I don’t know how to look into the eyes of my Christian neighbours with whom we have enjoyed cordial relations for so long. There is a lot of fear and panic that some may think we are also culpable,”
Dear Muslim brothers and sisters, do not feel guilty. Dear Muslim friends, I appreciate the words you share, with your feelings of anger, sadness at what has happened.
Because you are me. I am you. We all feel the same.
Honestly, there are no Buddhist or Islamic extremists. There are only extremists.
We have to remember that we have been here before.
Maybe the face of the monster looks different. But it is not. The face of the monster does not care for human life, does not care whether you are a child or a mother or father, brother or a sister, going about your daily life. Their only intention is to create monstrous havoc.
Those of us who have endured such dark times must unearth our stoicism, our resilience, our hope, our refusal to give up, not to cave into the monstrosity of a few or to the apathy of political leadership.
This resilience, stoicism, defiance against the face of terror requires us to act in ways that may seem paradoxical.
It means we have to be careful, ensure our safety at all times, not to unnecessarily gather in public places until it feels safe to do so. But it also means we have to go about our daily business, of going to work, to school, grocery shopping, playing in the park and going to our places of worship. It means we have to continue our lives. If we don’t, they, the monsters win.
It means that we have to be watchful and look over our shoulder, report anything that is suspicious. Yet we must not spread false rumours or engage in fear mongering.
It means not reading and listening to everything and believing. It means reading and being informed as to what is going on.
It means we have to tell our children, family and friends to be careful when they go to school and work. Yet we must tell them to get on with their daily lives.
It means telling a younger generation who have not known such atrocities in their times, that they have to learn to adapt and get on with things. It also means telling them not to get used it, because they must stand up and resist this new normal. We must have honest conversations with our children, those we work with, our families and friend, and to make sense of these senseless times.
I know that many organisations are struggling with absenteeism out of fear by many employees. A whole population of young men and women have grown up and gone to work in peaceful times in the last ten years. They have quite rightly enjoyed what is normal. Whilst what is happening is not normal, this for a little time maybe our normal. We—those who remember how to be resilient and stoic—must reach out to those who quite rightly feel bewildered, and scared. We must equip them with some of the arsenals of superpowers we have in us, to help them stave off the fears and uncertainty they are rightly feeling.
Because we must go on. Daily life must go on. Business must go on. Economies must go on. We cannot and will not bow down to a few who threaten our way of life.
It is only if we reach out from the wells of hope we nurture in our hearts, it is only if we share ourselves, our feelings, our hearts and hands with those who have been directly or indirectly affected, it is only if we traverse these paradoxical times together, that we can save each other.
We have to save each other, together.
We are all in this together as Sri Lankans, as human beings—and that is the only label we need. It is the only label we need to keep nurturing our hope, our resilience.
Together, as Sri Lankans, we will rise up, our hopes, dreams and the light of peace will be—is—resurrected from that Easter Sunday.
I pray for you, me, and Sri Lanka. May we stand together, strong and resilient, and light up our hearts and land with love and peace.
Mihirini de Zoysa
A strong, resilient, peaceful Sri Lankan