I am currently a scholarship student at Institut Catholique de Paris, which sounds very impressive, but it actually means that courtesy of the Scottish Catholic Church, I spend the morning failing to learn how to count in French and I spend my afternoons reading Karl Barth in the shade at the Luxembourg Gardens.
Life can be very hard.
I eat an inordinate amount of bread and cheese and am regularly scandalized by how expensive everything is, how hot it gets, and by how friendly the locals are. I stay in a tiny little one room flat so that it feels like I go to sleep on the footpath every night. I am in class with nuns from Iraq and priests from Korea and undergraduates from America and for some reason I set the alarms off in the library simply by walking through the front door.
I wasn’t in France when the tragic attack occurred in Nice on Bastille Day. And Aberdeen is only a few hundred kilometres further from Paris than Paris is from Nice, but everyone I have had small talk with from cab drivers to airplane companions to colleagues in Aberdeen have gently raised the topic of terrorism’s threat with me. No one is actually frightened for my safety but most people now seem to equate France with threat.
I live here on a little lane-way between two main avenues, close to the metro and bustling bistros and a parish church that cultivates its gardens so that it becomes a little ad-hoc park for the locals. There is splendid street art adorning the walls and directly across from my front door is an entrance to an art college where, for centuries, the weaving and printing of fabrics has been slowly perfected. The staff in the boulangerie already recognise me and get in the way of my learning by using me to practice their broken English, much closer to being all-together than my fragmentary French. Paris is a lovely place to live.
You could live here a long time and never realise that France was approaching its 15th year occupying Afghanistan. You could probably be a tourist here every year of your life and no one would ever mention to you that French military forces are currently engaged in Mali and the Central African Republic. You probably know that France is one of several Western powers who regularly bomb targets in Syria and Iraq from supersonic jets that can fire missiles into houses from 800 miles away. France is a dangerous enemy to have.
It would knock me off balance if a cab driver framed “France” and “threat” in these terms.
When my niece heard about the Nice attack her instinctive reaction was to lament the fact that the police shot the driver instead of arresting him. We shake our heads and with a tone of quiet gratitude for her naive innocence we feel a need to interpret those words away. “She doesn’t understand yet.”
She knows more about the attacks than I do because I don’t listen to radio and I don’t buy newspapers and I don’t watch the television and I curate Twitter so that it is mostly about weird jokes and I only have a Facebook account so that I can see what’s happening on the Aberdeen Divinity page and when the dust settles on horrible things, I go back and read about the things that seem important. I patched this approach to media together after reading how the great 20th Century Catholic mystic Thomas Merton only ever read newspapers that were weeks and weeks old. The news is mostly noise. The staleness of old news allows whatever truth remains to rise to the surface.
When I told one dear friend who was expressing concern that I only vaguely knew what had happened in Nice, she was slightly appalled. Did I not think that to follow the news was a moral responsibility? I told her I found the news confused me and when it doesn’t confuse me, it either enrages me or terrifies me. Increasingly, it does all three at the same time.
My niece knows very little really. She can tinkle away at a piano and she can do some Irish dancing and she is learning how to play camogie but she would be lost with a calculus problem and she doesn’t know how to navigate a job search and she’s never been dumped and she can’t cook and her understanding of the philosophical roots of parliamentary democracy is rudimentary at best. She doesn’t subscribe to the Economist and she listens to no podcasts. She understands, however, that every human life that is brought to an end is a tragedy. She hasn’t learned enough to discard that. Sure, she doesn’t even understand what she knows, but who does. Who knows the weight of such tragedy?
Tomorrow, after school, I’m going to the Louvre. I’ll pay particular attention, as I always do, to the frames. The frame determines the piece. The edge of the canvas is the limit that gives meaning to what is inside the painting. When we frame things in certain ways, it makes certain creations possible and rules others out. You can’t establish a triptych in the same setup as a landscape.
How we frame the world limits what we think is possible. In a very concrete sense (far from Richard Dawkins asshattery) if you believe in God there are horizons available to you that are impossible to the most sincere atheist. If you insist that the world is plenteous, and not scarce, opportunities present themselves that otherwise cannot be conceived. If you make space to lament the death of the terrorist and his victims, your frame has allowed you to grasp something about reality that is too often excluded. If you make the space away from the data and the noise of news you can very quickly begin to imagine the families in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and the Sahel who were killed by stray French bombs or assaulted by exhausted, dehydrated French soldiers.
You can even begin to imagine the plight of the soldier who finds himself afraid and tired and stressed and somehow bashing a door in and punching a young mother in the face. You’ve never flown a jet, but you can empathise with the pilot who sweats at night considering whether that missile did in fact go astray.
And once you have stood in those shoes, it will be a short and inevitable walk to consider the people who decide to kill families celebrating Bastille Day or murder music fans while they listen to rock music. Remember, to imagine those reasons and inhabit them temporarily is not the same thing as condoning them or licensing them or validating them. It just means that ISIS are indeed your neighbours, in ways that will both terrify and console you.
You can see yourself in them and still love Paris and still mourn with France and still cry when you see the footage of the grieving families but you will remember all the grieving families that never get shown on your television and never get prayed for in your church and never get photographed for the front pages of your newspapers and like a little child you will stand baffled at how things could go so far that they couldn’t somehow talk it out.
If you practice this strange habit of framing things wide, you’ll soon fear more how Rupert Murdoch can make you scared than you will fear for friends living in France. This won’t stop terrorism or even stop the war on terrorism. It may not even dent the profits of Rupert Murdoch. But this patient business of holding complicated truths in tension will generate communities where bakers welcome Irishmen and landlords leave up beautiful graffiti and people from all over the world can live on the same street and be neighbours.
Your Correspondent, Puts anti-freeze in the wine