Out Beyond Ideas: A Field of Empathy in Response to Violence

Out Beyond Ideas: A Field of Empathy in Response to Violence
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This piece was written by Dr. Susie Paulik Babka, daughter of Larry Paulik, who, along with four others, was killed by a motorist in Kalamazoo while riding his bike.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field.
I will meet you there.

The great Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi (1207-1273) speaks in this poem of a field, a clearing, a place empty of divisiveness, empty of opposition, empty of what we think is certain.

Fifteen minutes from my parents' house is a country road near a grassy field. Almost five months ago, ambulances and road crews, yellow crime scene tape and debris were strewn over this road, in a scene that haunts me at night, in impressions constructed from news reports and the pieces of survivors' memories. On June 7, the summer sun was still high in late afternoon when nine bikers from the "Chain Gang," a cycling club in Kalamazoo, Michigan, set out for a 28 mile ride, one the group had taken many times before. Five miles into the ride, a motorist in a large pick-up truck slammed into them with such force that five died, and four were horribly injured.

My father, Larry Paulik, and his close friend of over twenty years, Tony Nelson, were both killed, as were Debra Bradley, Melissa Fevig Hughes and Suzanne Sippel. Paul Gobble, Sheila Jeske, Jennifer Johnson and Paul Runnels continue long recoveries. Officials tell us that the deaths were instantaneous. I need to believe that. Because no one really knows. We can only speculate the last moments of one who has come to the end of this life.

Since June, violence reverberates throughout the world, in strains so familiar that we often are complacent when there is another headline. I am told that the man who drove into the cyclists was grieving the loss of a loved one. The violence of his action shredded the fabric of interconnection, the threads that bind us all as vulnerable, as aching for a new world. The grief of those left to mourn will be carried, heavy with who we were before and who we are after the violence, for the rest of our lives.

My father's life was unfinished, as all these lives were, as all our lives are. Very few of us reach the moment of our death satisfied that our lives are complete. Dad left behind a garage full of woodworking equipment, projects in various stages of completion. Books in his office were marked at spines that hadn't yet been cracked, pages that hadn't yet been touched. We had to figure out the password to his computer. It had been almost two weeks since I had last talked to him.

He had a habit of kissing my mother whenever he left the house; on that day, he was in a hurry to meet the group and she was in a hurry to meet friends, so there was only a slight glance to mark the last departure after fifty years. Of course, the last moment, the last word, is hardly important compared to the devotion they shared since they met in college. But we are hardly prepared for the seconds when the unremarkable meets the unforgettable. We don't usually recognize the most significant moments while they are happening.

The irony is that my father considered it his duty to increase awareness of each moment. He considered it a spiritual practice to change a routine once something became routine, like switching the wrist on which he wore his watch, or the pant leg with which he began in the morning. He said that it made him more aware of the ordinary. He practiced a deliberate compassion in the ordinary as well. From the compliment to a harried mother to blessing cars that cut him off on the highway, he found life in moments that seem inconsequential, but now I appreciate his attempt to mend the disconnections in the common places where we interact as strangers.

The violence that touched my family in June is too common in this world. Damaged people--perhaps mistreated and misunderstood, perhaps with mental illness--have access to weapons, or cars as weapons, and so have the power to reduce life to fractured memories and debris strewn over city streets or in mass graves. The perpetrators of violence exhale their brokenness as though violence is all there is to the world; perhaps it is all they have experienced, never knowing the love I knew from my father, or the love between the couples who died together in Orlando a few days after our family's tragedy.

When one who commits violence has not known love, such is also a violation, because each of us deserves to be valued and held as we are, where we are. Violence diminishes through witness to the vulnerability of the other. Each of us is responsible to the other to carry the world's fragmentation, to carry every sorrow.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky outlines the particular character of responsibility few of us are willing to assume: the responsibility "to all people for all and everything, for all human sins." In the novel, Fr. Zosima gently tells us: "every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all people, and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all humanity and every individual...Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. Then every one of you will have the power to win over the whole world by love and to wash away the sins of the world with your tears."

We don't often consider how our collective guilt extends the cruelty and division in the world. Perhaps the polarity between the secular and the sacred, and the unwillingness to be spiritually curious about our shared responsibility for violence, is why we blame the perpetrators of violence rather than ourselves. But we are all guilty of the failure to be compassionate.

So I bring my failures as a daughter to this field, my failures as a parent, and as a person, to love well, to meet the other before me, because there must be a place where it is possible that we are all human, all cherished, all regarded as worthy of empathy.

We must meet each other there, in this space where we are all beyond right and wrong because we are all precious despite our failures. The steady beat through the headlines of every day in every corner of the world, the violence of poverty, racism, homophobia; the violence of certainty, which claims the superiority of being "right"; the violence shouting that there are those who deserve to die; the violence of oppression, of absolutes, of nationalism. All violence surpassed in the simplicity of tenderness, the attentive word, the awareness that we each live, in every moment, exposed to death.

Through his actions, my father manifested his belief that each of us deserves compassion. His work for Peace House, dedicated to nonviolence, gave tangible expression to his curiosity to seek the sacred. For over twenty years, he visited those in prison, and I draw strength from the confidence that Dad would have sat with the man whose own anguish led to my family's tragedy. He would have listened to his story and comforted him.

Someday, on this field, beyond ideas of wrongdoing or rightdoing, we will all meet, in the empty place where Rumi whispers:

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.

Susie Paulik Babka, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. She has published on the relationship between the arts and theology, as well as on Buddhist-Christian dialogue and the problem of suffering. Her book, Through the Dark Field: the Incarnation Through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability, is forthcoming from Liturgical Press.

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