I just returned from three weeks in New England. It was the longest I’ve ever been away from home, and it truly felt like a trip to the fairy lands, completely separated from the worries and cares of normal life. We ate too much, drank too much, and made merry at Templefest, the annual festival of the Temple of Witchcraft. Add some vacation time in the White Mountains, a little more in Salem and other important areas of Massachusetts, and a five day convention for my wife’s business, and you have the makings of a long escape from the everyday world.
As all members of the magickal community know, any time you are in a space between the worlds you are in a special place. Often, we use altered consciousness and ritual to enter that kind of space, but sometimes there is something extra powerful about physically being in an entirely different world from what you know. When you are here-but-not-from-here, a little out of your comfort zone, you have the opportunity to see yourself and the world you live in through entirely new eyes. When your mind isn’t consumed with the mundane worries about job, bills, and home repairs, you can actually just live. It’s a rare opportunity to see your life through new eyes.
One of the things I like to avoid on vacation is news. I know, that sounds so irresponsible. But I find that only by recharging myself with rest time away from the constant string of awful things that happen every day around the world can I really be ready to intelligently engage those topics when I return to normal life. I still get AP news alerts on my phone, so I often have some idea what is going on, but I rarely take the time out from a day at the beach or a hike through the beautiful New Hampshire woods to thoroughly investigate the details of whatever terrible thing is going on at this moment. Bad news will still be there when I get home.
Despite this relative isolation from the world, there were three news stories that were impossible to ignore during the time we were out of town. The first to come along was the siege of the Yezidis by the ISIS organization in Iraq. Then came the apparent suicide of Robin Williams. Finally, there were the demonstrations in Ferguson, MO in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. Each one of these stories mushroomed through the news and social media. Each one is much more complicated than it appears, and each one reveals a basic truth we all know but often refuse to admit: Every person, every group, every society is racked with inner pain and turmoil that outsiders don’t understand. Whoever you meet, and wherever you are, everyone around you is quietly suffering.
The Yezidis are a Kurds who live in northern Iraq. Their religion differs from orthodox Islam, be it Sunni or Shi’a Islam. Remember back in 2003 when politicians were declaring that the people of Iraq would greet American troops with roses in the streets? We all know that didn’t happen. The strife between the Shi’as and the Sunnis spilled into the streets as the majority Shi’as fought Sunnis formerly backed by Saddam for power. Al Qaeda backed the Shi’as, who organized into groups like ISIS, and are seeking to impose their radical Islam onto the country.
Since the Yezidis are different both ethnically and spiritually (some Muslims consider them to be devil worshippers), they couldn’t catch a break. ISIS really wanted them out. All of the facets of this conflict have been brewing for hundreds of years. It took a spark to ignite the fire, and the US withdrawal from Iraq combined with a weak government in the country provided that. We learned early on that all Iraqis are not the same. There is pain and hatred within the society just as there is in our country. You’d never assume all Americans think the same way, so why did we think that about Iraqis?
Robin Williams was one of my favorite actors ever. He was known for his zany comedy, but films like Good Will Hunting and Mrs. Doubtfire show that he was equally talented at dramatic roles (Sorry, I never found Mrs. Doubtfire funny, I have always felt it is an incredibly sad movie). Williams was open about his problems with drug addiction and depression, but the public never really understood the magnitude of his struggle until last week. It just seems so tragic that this American icon, an amazing comedian who once played Patch Adams, a doctor who advocated laughter as one of the world’s most potent medicines, could fall victim to such profound depression. The general public really knows very little about the devastation that depression can unleash upon your life. It’s a lot more than “feeling sad.”
Every major city in America has some form of racial tension. As friends of mine such as Crystal Blanton often remind white folks such as myself, we are privileged. We live lives where we can afford to ignore these troubles. They don’t. If the people of Ferguson are afraid of their mostly white police force, that is something they can’t leave their house without worrying about. I never worry about that. I can afford not to; they can’t.
Any time you have this type of tension between those who hold power and those who don’t, it only takes a spark to blow it up. Michael Brown was, unfortunately, that spark. But if it had not been him it would have been another person. The anger and fear of the community had been churning inside for a very long time. Of course, the police response made it worse. Adding more gunpowder to any fire will always do that.
Again, I’ve been away from home and a bit out of touch, so I admit I don’t know all the details about Ferguson. But I’m fascinated by Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who took over the police handling of the protests. Johnson switched tactics from hurling tear gas and arresting journalists to talking to the protestors, discussing their grievances, and providing them space to exercise their right to protest as long as streets remained clear.
So often, we think we know what is going on within someone else or in another society. The truth is, we don’t. We don’t know and can’t see the wounds and pain, some of them festering for centuries, that grow and poison us just beneath the surface. Oh we see them in ourselves, even if we choose to ignore them, but we have trouble making that leap of understanding that our neighbors have their own pain.
But it is that very pain that lingers below the surface that catches fire once the scab gets picked. Robin Williams was deeply in pain despite his wildly comedic exterior. Iraq was a much more complicated puzzle than one nasty dictator. Racial pain in Ferguson was already boiling. Never assume you know a person’s life story. Never assume you fully understand someone else’s motivations. Never paint any person or society with one broad paintbrush. You will be wrong. Worse, it could blow up in your face. Instead, try listening.