Author’s note: It’s been about two months since the November 13 attacks in Paris. I wrote this article on the Tuesday following the attacks, when my emotions were still raw. However, I decided not to publish the post because I felt like doing so would be capitalizing on others’ great personal loss, or creating a blog post from a tragedy that affected others’ lives so much more than it did my own. The idea of doing that just left a bad taste in my mouth.
However, this is a personal blog and these were deep personal thoughts. So now, two months later, I’ve decided to publish the post in the hopes that it will add and give dimension to the representation of my worldview that this blog conveys, and do some justice to its subject.
In the past three days, I think I’ve spent a total of about two hours away from internet. My weekend has been one of mourning, fear and confusion. I’ve scoured just about every source of news there is for information about Friday’s attacks in Paris, and in the time I wasn’t reading about the situation, I was thinking about it.
I feel a very real, visceral response to this particular attack. I don’t live in Paris, I don’t know anyone who was killed, and I know objectively that there are plenty of atrocious things going on all over the globe that kill more people on a daily basis than terrorism in France. More people were killed in a recent plane crash by a Russian airline – the perpetrator of which is thought to be ISIS – than in the Paris attacks. Beirut lost 40 people to an act of terrorism on Thursday. Huge numbers of people in the Middle East are killed on an ongoing basis, and the current level of violence in Syria is exactly what’s driving people away from their homeland and into other nations as refugees.
I’m usually an optimistic person about the state of the world. I know that, statistically, we have lower rates of violence than we ever have before. I truly do believe in the good of humanity. I friends who are atheist, agnostic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Wiccan, and Baha’i, and I’ve seen the beautiful light of kindness and love in all of their eyes. I truly believe that people are inherently good. My experience simply makes me sure of it. But it seems that it’s easy, when separated by distance, religion, culture or other factors, to forget about the humanity of people whose cultures might seem, at the surface, to be in opposition to ours.
I spent about a month in Paris when I was 21. It was an amazing four weeks, and I can say without any reservation that it changed my life. I stayed with my cousin John, who introduced me to all of his wonderful friends. For a young, rosy-eyed girl from small-town Wisconsin, the experience was a game-changer. I got my first taste not only of city life, but of multiculturalism, liberalism, avocado (literally – it was in Paris that I tried my first avocado), and friendship with people who were from backgrounds different than my own. We drank wine by the Seine. We spent our weekends picnicking, ambling around the city, eating kabobs and dining at cafes. We spent our nights exploring the Parisian nightlife, admiring the interesting people we saw, our adventures culminating at someone’s apartment, where we played cards or smoked on the balcony, looking out onto the city below.
I know I’m romanticizing all of this, but when you’re a green, relatively innocent 21-year-old girl with bohemian-leaning sympathies, spending four weeks in Paris is a pretty fantastic thing.
Four weeks, of course, is nothing compared to the years and lifetimes Parisians spend in the city. I only got a quick glimpse into the Parisian lifestyle, but I know enough to say that it’s a beautiful city that savors and embraces life. Friendship, secularism, wine, pleasure, love, food, music, and the freedom to pursue these beautiful things … all the natural feelings and values that we often associate with humanity are the values that Paris embodies better than probably any other city in the world.
We’d like to think that things like friendship, wine, pleasure, love, food and music are universally dear to the human heart. But what happened in Paris last weekend has probably made many of us reconsider whether they are inherent or learned.
Many world leaders have characterized the Paris attacks as wars on Western culture. It seemed clear that the life-enhancing values I mentioned above are not inherent, and that in fact, certain groups of people want to do harm to modernity and all the quality-of-life benefits that come with it.
For much of the weekend, this idea consumed my reaction. In those first two days, I felt incredible sadness, fear and loss. I follow the news closely and am often left feeling sorrow for people killed in acts of terrorism in the Middle East. With absolute certainty, the lives of people in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and all other countries are of the same value as the lives of Parisians. This is not up for debate.
But, as a young person who travels often (including in Paris), and loves to do things like attend concerts, eat at cafes and drink at bars, the Paris attacks really rattled me. The victims of the attacks could have very easily been myself or my friends. These were my peers – and while, again, I don’t value their lives more than those of people from different backgrounds, there’s no denying that an attack on a culture so similar to my own helped me feel the loss more palpably.
In those first few days after the attack, in the frenzy of media consumption I embarked upon, I began fearing that this was the beginning of the end of my culture. I consider my “modern” lifestyle to be an achievement. I’m from a small town (population roughly 2,000) and a pretty conservative family. I was raised Catholic and got married at 22 to my first boyfriend. Throughout all of this, I knew that such a traditional lifestyle was not for me. It took a lot of courage and a ton of “I can do this” thinking to make it happen, but I eventually found a job in a big city, traveled to the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Mexico, Australia and Fiji, lived in New Zealand, got divorced, became an experienced urbanite, embraced multiculturalism, read hundreds of articles on politics, world news, philosophy and history, discovered feminism, and finally started to resemble the person I only wished I could be when I was 22.
For many, these are first-world problems; but for me, personal growth is immensely important. The things that Paris represents – the freedom and the pursuit of pleasure and the love of life – were things I had to work toward. After the attacks, my initial reaction was a great fear that the things I believe in so deeply could be wrenched away from me through terror and violence.
Finally, on Sunday, I started to calm down a little. I had been fretting about all of this when I went to bed on Saturday night. I was reconsidering my world-view, my potential move to San Francisco, my lifestyle … I was scared. But when I woke up on Sunday morning, I reminded myself that this feeling of terror, this questioning of our modern, free lifestyles, is exactly what terrorism is all about.
Of course, these horrible attacks won’t actually impact my life choices. I will still eat at cafes, take public transportation, go to bars, attend concerts, dress the way I want to, party as much as I want to, travel as a single woman, and live a life that I consider both audacious and natural at the same time.
My sadness at the attacks in Paris is not even close, of course, to what those in Paris are feeling right now. But I’m more afraid of an unlived life than the possibility of terror. As we move forward from this event, whatever may come next, we must continue to value all the things Paris embodies – friendship, secularism, wine, pleasure, love, food, music and freedom – more than we fear adversity.