The past few days woke me up. They reminded me of the reality that I am a citizen of a nation at war. A war with no end in sight. 9/11 occurred when I was six years old. I was in China at the time and didn't see footage until high school. Yet for the majority of my life, I have been at war with terror and the arena of international discourse has been inextricably shaped by the Twin Towers.
World events easily appear overwhelming and far removed from my surroundings as a college student in Indiana. I wake up, go to class, hang out, eat dining hall food, and stress over papers without a second thought. I live my life. Yet this very fact is shocking. For what period of human history has being at war left such minimal impact on the everyday lives of citizens?
This isn't the way I expected it. As a kid, I loved watching war movies, fantasizing over Civil War generals and drawing elaborate battles between stick figures or arranging army men in the crevices of my blankets. War was a heroic, exciting dream. 9/11 was anything but that. I still can't fully comprehend the event let alone the consequences. In class, I'm shocked to learn of the brutal murder of an inflammatory Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, in 2004. At my desk, I flippantly open CNN to face a knife-wielding executor in Iraq or Syria.
Disbelief, outrage, and finally fear settle in while my global citizenship fissures and my pursuit of a future in international peace-building falters. Stop. Isn't this the very intention of the enemy? I can't buy into terror. Just believe that my government has what it takes to protect me. Simple. Reading excerpts from President Barack Obama's recent 9/11 memorial speech, I resettle into my chair and turn the music back on.
I simply don't want to be disturbed. Though I may not admit it, I know I long for normalcy. If you ask me what I want to do with my life, I'll pause for effect then proceed to eloquently proclaim my desire to engage communities, learn about culture, and fight stifling social norms. But let me climb down from my pedestal. Let me reflect honestly on my day-to-day decision-making. Wait, my phone just buzzed. Time to schedule another dining hall excursion.
Meanwhile the news headlines flash past. Another bomb. Another rocket attack. I can deal with this. Hold it at arm's length and drown out the sadness with another song. And so I go on living my life while drones fly around villages in Pakistan. Sensationalism has no need for the Syrian refugees who fled for their lives three years ago. Let alone third-generation Palestinian refugees. What does that even mean? Have we actually left people in refugee camps for their entire lives? Whoops, that's too political.
Classes at Notre Dame gave me the right vocabulary: solidarity, accompaniment, service as learning. But that wasn't enough. I needed to actually go out and live among the people I say I want to fight for, to comprehend my powerlessness and inability to "make a difference." This summer, I had the opportunity to live in a wonderful parish community in Jordan, volunteering with refugees and teaching English. I will never forget fumbling for words while visiting a Syrian family, having learned that the mother committed suicide several weeks earlier, or talking with a cheerful father who served tea with a bullet from Assad embedded in his heel. I needed to shed my rhetoric for a transformative, motivating humility.
The past few days reminded me that I live in a scary world. War is real. Refugees are real people with real day-to-day struggles that I can barely imagine. As a result, I put them aside, effectually dismissing the crisis as normal. As a college student, I take convenience for granted. Living on campus, I take buffet meals for granted. I don't worry about stray bullets or clean water or watching out for my younger siblings on the streets.
Notre Dame gave me a remarkable opportunity to observe a humanitarian crisis. But now what? Do I simply check it off the list? Polish it up for the resume? Meeting Syrian refugees enabled me to move beyond the flashy headlines. It clarified my vision and helped me frame my abstract academic studies in a concrete human experience. But I also need to resist the arrogant dissonance that treats crisis as merely far away problem while ignoring the injustice in my vicinity, e.g. hyper-incarceration and engrained racial stereotypes.
At an everyday level, I want to make an effort to change my thought life, to adjust my hurried academic and social routine, to make time for reflection, prayer, and sincerity. Let me keep the fire of compassion burning and not succumb to the convenience of normalization.