Exactly a week before the terrorist attacks in Paris, I was roaming around the same area of cafes and restaurants that was so badly affected. I had chosen it because it was a new area to walk through, each day, to and from my work there that week – I was on a long assignment. Over the years of working in Paris, I have developed my Parisian visitor’s habits. Depending on where I need to work, I would pick a familiar place to stay with a nice place to eat at nearby. And I really liked this new area – the 10th and 11th arrondissements – because of its multi-ethnic and diverse feel. It was interesting to walk around and, most importantly, there was a sense of safety and respect in the street which I rarely experience in Paris.
People always, always ask me why I wouldn’t prefer to return to France, or Paris, rather than live in the UK, near London. And the answer for me is always, always the same. As soon as I step out of the Eurostar, I find myself shielding myself from potential and, very likely, social aggressions. Sadly here, for once, I am not exaggerating. People are not spontaneously kind towards one another in Paris but indifferent, wary, defensive or often aggressive. I can never, ever relax on the tube in Paris for example… Whilst in London, I feel implicitly accepted. That’s my experience. And it’s been consistent over the years, and sadly, getting worst in France, each time I go there.
What happened a week later was devastating. There are no words for the enormity of the horror and suffering created by nine individuals in the name of an ideology that is so extremist in its inhumanity. I reflected on how Paris would never be the same again after this, no matter what. How distrust and racism was likely to rise further – as it has done after the last atrocity at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January this year. As Quakers say, I held the deceased in the light and I thought of the injured, the families…and for anyone with dark skin living in Paris or elsewhere.
And my attention returned to the nine individuals.
I am not angry and I don’t feel hatred. I would just like to know what I could do to help the next potential generation of terrorists re-integrate the society they clearly feel so excluded from. How can such young men feel the need to kill their own people on their own land? None of this makes sense. Unless you have no sense of belonging, no bond with the land you grow on and with the people you walk on it with.
I took part in a beautiful open listening session at the St Ethelburga’s centre for reconciliation and peace this week. The theme was “The terrorist events of the last year”. There were many expressions of sadness and, also, of anger. And something happened for me when I was there. I had been strongly aware of how emotionally unsettled I had been all week. And it is only when I left the centre and made my way back through the city that I realised that the heaviness that had accompanied me for so many days had suddenly lifted. Peace had retuned in my heart, and hope.
I am hopeful. Because people are awaking to the fact that some people are suffering, really suffering and that somehow they need to take responsibility for that suffering. And for the fact that, today, they are not connected to the people who are suffering, that many of these people have been suffering in their shadow. And the fact that they wonder and ask questions – as I do – brings rays of hope in my heart.
Facebook kindly reminded me this morning that exactly a year ago I attended the launch of “Rising Women, Rising World” at Westminster. This was a beautiful event. And the main memory from it is etched in the words of one of the only men present who rose to his feet at the end of the evening to share them: “Collective transformation happens through the marriage of compassion and collaboration“.
And compassion is a difficult concept for most people. How do I feel compassionate? What is compassion?
I have come to the realisation this week that all I need to do is nurture gentleness in me, and kindness, to see compassion rise in myself. Gentleness is the first stepping stone over the river of judgement, cynicism and fear.
And if you are as passionate a person as I am, then you will know how gentleness is often not intuitive. How you need to befriend it, daily.
And everything starts with me, as always. If I’m gentle towards myself then I am more likely to be gentle towards others, regardless of what they are doing or what they have done. Kindness may arise and then maybe, compassion. Then, I just need to work on the collaborations, and there is hope for collective transformation…
How might YOU be more gentle?