We are all connected. Two of my friends, both photographers, were visiting Paris during the November 13, 2015, ISIS attacks. One of them, Steve McCurry, a photographer for Magnum, emailed me: “I was at the football match believe it or not, where the bombs went off … Was crazy. There was a stampede, thought I was going to be trampled to death. Am flying [home] … now.”
His news was strangely fitting. As a photographer, Steve has chosen a life of danger and adventure. His travels reveal a kaleidescope of human portraits, each showing unique individuals, their eyes meeting ours and revealing the depth of our sameness. He has had many brushes with death, and I was not surprised to learn he was at that scene in Paris.
My other friend, Noriko Nasu-Tidball, a Vancouver-based photographer, stayed on in Paris for over a week. She sent me photos she took of a makeshift memorial that was set up near the restaurants where 19 were killed and others injured (top photo).
After the attacks happened, Noriko had been wandering Paris, and was having trouble finding the apartment where she was staying. “It felt very strange — I ended up back at the same spot,” she wrote me. “Then, suddenly, people were shouting and running everywhere. I asked what was happening and someone told me there was a suicide bomber nearby. We all ran into a small restaurant and rushed upstairs until it was confirmed safe to go out.”
Here in North America, I wasn’t yet ready to read the reports on the news. But Noriko and I continued to correspond.
“People in Paris are living in fear,” she wrote. That same afternoon, there was another scare. A generous Parisian woman invited my friend to hide with her in her apartment.
As a young adult, I studied under a woman who claimed to be a spiritual teacher. I’ll call her Lucy. In hindsight, I see that there was much value in her teaching, but there was also a lot of distortion. That distortion, a dark side — whether we call it ignorance, stupidity, hatred, evil or impudence — is in all of us.
Ultimately, love connects us. And it’s often in loosening the knots of distortion that we discover our deepest connections. Lucy taught me some basic practices that I have combined with others I learned later, all of which help me in the struggle to be a compassionate human in a conflicted world.
The most important exercise Lucy taught me was to journal. I learned to look at my part in any misunderstanding. As soon as I found myself laying blame, it was a signal to look within until I could see my part, no matter how small. Only then could I open a dialogue with the other.
I grew up learning to question everything, and was rewarded for being open minded, curious and daring. But my family’s style was competitive and overly focused on the intellect. An aggressive attitude tinged my approach to life. Grappling with the paradox of making friends with my inner demons, I learned to listen to the repressed parts that only show up when the unconscious mind has a chance to speak.
The trick is learning to focus where it’s most uncomfortable, without blame or self–recrimination. With a dream journal, I learned to track inner conflicts and psychic stumbling blocks through symbolic language.
Dreams are universal — we all have them, whether we choose to work at remembering them or not. Symbols from the unconscious bubble up in our dreams, guiding us naturally to ever deepening understanding of ourselves and our lives.
For about 10 years, I practiced Aikido, a Japanese martial art dedicated to world peace. My sensei taught us that were leaving the mundane world behind when we stepped on the mat and bowed. The mat was a special zone, a world onto itself, where we practiced in safety, responding to each other’s attacks.
Aikido includes care for our practice partners, even when they are attacking us in ways that feel real. I learned through repetition to stay present as someone came at me with a punch or a strike, and how to respond in the flow to put my partner to the ground, yet without adding any aggression of my own.
Simple practices of sincere self-reflection lead to the possibility of deepening our awareness and freeing us to be both more compassionate and more courageous. I see many posts online encouraging us to look within and to become better human beings. Yet most governments fail at it miserably. How can we bridge the gap?
Since September 2014, there have been over 50 vicious attacks around the world for which ISIS claims responsibility.
In February 2015, a Canadian Muslim man wanted to make a statement of human solidarity. Mustafa Mawla stood outside in downtown Toronto with a blindfold covering his eyes. Signs at his feet proclaimed he was Muslim, not a terrorist. Open to trust, with arms spread wide, he offered hugs and was met in turn with a warm, hug-filled response.
Another Muslim man stood blindfolded with arms stretched wide in the Place de la Republique, near where many of the Paris attacks happened. His signs proclaimed in French: “I’m a Muslim, but I’m told I’m a terrorist. I trust you, do you trust me? If yes, HUG me.” And they did.