Thoughts on refugees

December 10th, 2015, 9pm

It was 11.1°C with scattered clouds. The wind was light.

The world is going crazy, as it has been since the beginning. - Mahmoud Al Moufti

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils
. - Jack Gilbert

Suffering is inevitable. We know this. We expect this. The world is a messy place, and the insoluble difficulties which afflict us today are not so very different from those of years past, at least in their intractability. Our guns are bigger, our villains more menacing, our conflicts seeping uncontained across international borders. It is worse than it has ever been - but I daresay the same refrain rang out as the bombs fell on 1940’s London; as the bullets flew at Gettysburg in 1863; as plague and famine descended time and again in every corner of the world throughout the ages. The world is going crazy… as it has been since the beginning.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would
not be made so fine…
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.

That conflict is chronic and expected, and that despite the dire warnings it is no worse than it once was - these are the justifications I use to shut my eyes. Because that’s what God wants. I don’t quote Gilbert sarcastically - his poem, A Brief for the Defense, painfully articulates the absolute necessity of hope, of joy. Of delight. It is still our moral duty to seek delight.

We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.

And yet - not today. Today, the world seems crazier than normal, the sorrow and slaughter closer to my heart. That my world is not a ruthless furnace is the consequence of nothing more than luck. I see the refugees fleeing for their lives, frightened for themselves and their loved ones, and I see no difference between us but circumstance. War may be pervasive across time, but so too is humanity across oceans, languages, and religions. If luck had run against me and our positions were reversed, their fears would be mine; their suffering would be mine; their heartbreak would be mine.

To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

That the end had magnitude - that their status as human beings was recognized, that mercy was extended to them, that their significance in the world was not forgotten. At the very least, that their suffering was not discounted as a foregone conclusion, an anticipated side effect of geopolitical instability. This is not the message we are sending.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
- Jack Gilbert

The only thing truly worth all the years of sorrow are the moments of grace, few and far between as they might be. We must not let sorrow, and all the hatred and fear it reaps, outpace our compassion and our humanity, which together might begin to resemble something like grace.

Note: Excerpts in italics are taken from Jack Gilbert’s poem, A Brief for the Defense. The illustration is by Lorenzo Mattotti, featured in Neil Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel.

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Sara Ashley

Writer, runner, and a terrible but enthusiastic karaoke star.

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