Thousands of years ago, each god gave her something. Apollo bestowed her with musical talents; from Aphrodite she received beauty; Hermes and Athena contributed intelligence. And Zeus sent her into the mortal world with a gift: a sealed box. They created Pandora to be perfect, but she still retained the quite-human quality of curiosity. She couldn’t bear her reality of carrying around a jar without knowing what was inside, and so one day, succumbing to natural temptation, she slid the lid. From this tiny portal, out sprang all of the evils in the world: plague, fanaticism, senseless violence.
Even in our present day, the horrors that Pandora released still haunt us. We have woken to reports of carnage so often in the past few weeks, months, and years, that we begin to feel numb. It’s easier to be numb. Easier to go to work, easier to sit down to dinner, easier to close our eyes. But a recent attack shocked me out of my numbness. A Sunday mass in a tiny French village, stopped by what Ian McEwan calls “the Death Cult.” These death-worshippers went for Father Hamel, and forced a churchgoer to pull out a phone and film. They chanted—sermonized—before destroying a beloved soul.
Objectively, this attack wasn’t nearly as damaging as others. There was no mass shooting, no bombed mosque, no ancient artifacts crushed. Yet, this was just as horrifying. One human, ritually sacrificed like a goat upon an altar. All of it filmed on a cell phone. Perhaps this juxtaposition is the most insidious part of the horror: an act of barbarity coupled with a tool of modernity. Islamist zealots attempting to drag the world back to the 7th century with products of the 21st.
Immediately, several tired responses spring about. The first is to let hope seep away, abandoning ourselves to despair. This is the person who decides to give up on their brothers and sisters, removing themselves from humanity altogether. This group throws up their hands and exclaims: “We live in a fucked up world, it’s gonna stay that way, so there’s no point in trying to change a thing.” This is the cynic’s copout: a cowardly worldview that requires no action, no real response, no bravery nor courage.
Then, the inverse of the cynic creeps about as well. The meaningless response which makes a person feel as if they’re helping. This is as easy as abandoning hope; in fact all you really need to do is overlay the colors of the flag of the terror-stricken nation onto your profile picture for a few days. Just share a fact-free political or moralistic meme about the attack which confirms your worldview. Tweet a thoughtless message that ends in #prayfor____, while ignoring the fact that worship is precisely what caused the slaughter. They’ll do all of this, and then sit back and think, “The world is messed up, but at least I’m helping make it better.” This childish view of the world is so naïve that it reaches the level of negligence and actually causes harm.
No, what we should do is recognize that if optimism is a foolish method of viewing the world, then so too is pessimism. Understand that the most productive way lies somewhere in the middle…but leaning towards optimism. What we require now, are people who look at the world for what it is and take real measures to respond. These are the people who recognize that there is evil in the world that must be hated, but there is also beauty that has to be loved.
If the Death Cult wants to revert back to barbarity and level medieval accusations against us, we should allow ourselves to be guilty of them. Embrace accusations of heresy by blaspheming against their love of death with an exultant love of life. Continue to live with a life-affirming attitude and an adoration for this world that disgusts them and their preoccupations with the hereafter. Draw silly caricatures of holy figures, and continue to write profane literature. Continue to think with an open mind embracing modern ideas of acceptance and rationality. Will this stop the attacks from coming? Will this defeat the jihadists? No…perhaps these attacks cannot be stopped, and maybe this enemy can’t be defeated. But their ideology will not spread. It will ensure that their deification of death never grips us. Pandora’s story doesn’t end with her releasing evil into the world, but rather with her closing the lid and keeping hope stuck in the jar. Hope doesn’t fly away. It stays with Pandora—with humans. As long as we affirm our lives every day and take deep pleasure in our existence, death-worshippers can’t win, and if they can’t win, hope can remain. Pandora’s box is still closed.