Making Sense of the Incomprehensible

The pain of losing a friend or loved one can be traumatic, even debilitating if the death is unexpected. In the wake of a sudden loss, mourners often retreat from society and contemplate what the deceased person meant to them, and eventually, ask the ultimate question: “Why did they have to leave?”

I recently read: Messages from the Masters, Tapping into the Power of Love, by Brian Weiss, M.D. (Warner Books) Dr. Weiss, a psychiatrist, has developed a body of written work documenting the controversial topic of past life regression. His essential premise is that Earth has been created by God as a learning environment and each human soul lives numerous times, acquiring knowledge that brings us closer to true enlightenment. His technique, spiritual psychotherapy, involves inducing each subject into a state of deep hypnosis during which they purportedly recount experiences from past lives. Invariably, the subjects return to waking consciousness with deep insight as to a problem or issue in their current existence. Dr. Weiss’ discussion also encompasses the idea that the capacity to love is in our nature as human beings, and that love is a universal energy which unites all things. I believe him.

On the other hand, life’s tragedies challenge that belief. Hugh Johnson was a wonderful a man. He was my son’s Godfather. In August 1989, he left Washington with Congressman Mickey Leland to go on a mission to an Ethiopian refugee camp. Before he was to leave for the airport, we stopped by to say goodbye and to give him some money to purchase African artifacts. Just before we got into the car to leave, Hugh asked me: “When is that baby due again?” (I was pregnant with my second child) I thought to myself: “Hugh we just talked about that” but I said: “November.” He said: “We’ll be looking out for that.” I remember taking an extra good look at him, and having a vague feeling of dread, but being a worrier by nature, I discounted it. The plane he was on disappeared in Ethiopia before reaching its destination.

After an agonizing week of praying and watching CNN around the clock, Patricia called to say that the wreckage of the plane had been found and that there were no survivors. Hugh, and 13 other people died in the plane crash that killed Congressman Leland. The babies he left behind lost something no one could ever replace. What was the deeper meaning of his death? What lesson did we all take from that loss? Even 20 years later, the ‘why?’ just escapes me.

In September 1992, my husband and I enrolled our then 4 year old son into a Washington D.C. pre-school. Our little boy appeared to enjoy the learning and socialization process well enough. The only other black child in Donald’s class became a special friend. DeVaughn was with Donald constantly. He was bright, bubbly, handsome and completely adorable. I loved him. Donald, DeVaughn, and my 2 year-old daughter Justine had marvelous play dates, spending hours talking, singing, role playing and all the other things little people do.

Then DeVaughn was murdered.

On a Sunday morning before I was to take Donald and Justine to see Dance Theater of Harlem, my husband came in the room looking stricken. Alarmed, I turned off the television and felt my mind break as he told me what happened and that the headmistress of the school called to alert him before he saw it on tv. There is no way to reclaim the piece of my psyche that I lost in the aftermath. I cried every day for weeks afterward. I cried for DeVaughn, that he was hurt and that he suffered. I cried for his Mom, who was also hurt in the attack. I cried for Donald and Justine’s lost innocence, knowing that they would always remember their friend and his loss.

I was angry at myself for not understanding that the life of a black child can be at risk even when it is sheltered in the coccoon of white privilege. In an attempt to sheild my son from the rugged truths in our world, we wound up bringing him to an ultimate truth: the life of an African-American male can be extinguished at any time and for no reason at all. The killer murdered more than DeVaughn’s body, he erased his future. There will be no football, or girlfriends, or college career for him. We will never get to meet his children or his wife. All we have are memories of his smile and delightful laughter. The memories really don’t satisfy or bring true comfort.

I still struggle with this loss. My son still struggles with this loss. He had DeVaughn’s birth and death dates tatooed on his arm on his 18th birthday. Unlike the subjects of Dr. Weiss’ book, I really can’t make sense of DeVaughn’s death. Maybe if I hadn’t loved him so deeply, I would have long ago put this memory away. Does that mean the answer is to love others less to avoid the pain of loss when they are gone? I don’t think so. But the pain and the questions persist. They always will.

My prayers are with Jennifer Hudson and her sister.

Facing the Music

I went to a dance performance with my little girl last night. There was great diversity in the dance styles presented. From flamenco to hip hop, the music evoked powerful emotions which were translated to the movements of each dancer. The new Joy of Motion dance facility on H street in Washington, D.C. is a sparkling example of urban renewal.

I was impressed by the skill in the execution of all the dances, but I was moved by the hip hop music and the accompanying performances. At 48, I can only dream of being able to ‘bust a move’ like they did on stage. However, the profound commentary made by the dancers was unmistakeable. 18 year old Erica Hart used thought provoking music by Citizen Cope, mixed with some old school Herman Kelly and her own beats to display her artistic vision. In a performance entitled ‘5 to 9’, choreographer Aysha Upchurch used the dancers as a paintbrush and made it clear that hip hop and rap music are expressive art forms that tell an American story as valid as that in the music of Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein.

Rap and hip hop have evolved from the days of The Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow. When Grandmaster Flash released “The Message” in 1982, it became clear that every ugly reality of life in the ‘hood’ could be set to a beat played over the airwaves. At that point, Black America’s pain became a musical vehicle and music became another tool to vent and inform the rest of the world. I actually cried the first time I heard it. Crime, hopelessness, economic hardship and all the social dysfunction that goes with them were exposed for the world to hear. It was at that point that the music should have created a new dialogue between political leaders, business and financial interests and the community. After all, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Black Nationalist movement and the anti-war movement, we were all ready to implement the ideals expressed by Dr. King and change the society, right?

What happened instead is that lucrative recording contracts, record sales and instant fame for the chosen few became the incentive for creating the music. Many artists continued to speak the truth of their own life experiences, but increasing numbers of posers simply channeled horrible thoughts and hateful words into their rhymes to feed into the gangster rap machine. Dr. Dre has admitted that he at one time tried to write rhymes without describing women as “Bitches and Hos”, but he just couldn’t find the inspiration. As he returned to the use of those terms, he influenced a generation of Black children to do the same. Black mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters all got branded and diminished in stature because of the American music industry’s profit motive. The words ‘virture’ and ‘Black female’ so infrequently occur in the same sentence that when Robert Sylvester (R. Kelly) is accused of abusing scores of underage females, it is often Black females themselves who vigorously defend him. I don’t believe that R. Kelly and Dr. Dre or their product are representative of all rap and hip hop music, it’s that the community embraced them and amplified their message without shutting down the hatred inherent in their words and behavior. We needed Don Imus to use those words before we examined what they really mean in popular culture.

Music has an influential relationship to the soul and the psyche of the listener. Just as listening to the blues can make us feel melancholy, listening to gangster rap can subliminally fill us with rage. The frequent ‘beefs’ between artists are proof of that. On the other hand, the music I heard last night and the dances that interpreted it made me feel uplifted. I was encouraged to see that hip hop and rap have not killed our children’s souls, but that young people are adaptive and able to make life-affirming choices about the complex challenges they face in the future.

Oil in the Garden of Eden

While decision makers declare wars, ordinary people must try to live in the midst of destruction. Wars are about land acquisition, political power or strategic resources, and a declaration of war includes detailed assessments of the opponent’s land mass, and its access to the resources required to make and sustain a standing army. Soldiers never consider the well being of the noncombatants, the ordinary people of a remote location. That is our mandate as caring, concerned citizens. The decision to invade Iraq had everything to do with acquiring control of its vast petroleum reserves. Since that has been accomplished, how do we make the Iraqi people whole and get on with the business of healing and recociliation?

Mesopotamia, site of modern-day Iraq, has been the site of armed conflict throughout the duration of human history. Known as the Cradle of Civilization, this area at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was also the site of the Babylonian empire. Scholars have long marveled at the well-document contributions of the Babylonians, and their descendants, the Iraqis, in the fields of literature, medicine, mathematics, architecture and philosophy. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for instance, known as one of the ancient wonders of the world, was a manifestation of human creativity and ingenuity in its highest form. Hammurabi’s Code was the world’s first codification of national laws.

There is ample precedent for hatred between the West and the people of the Midlle East. Pope Urban II in 1095, on the eve of the First Crusade, wrote:

“For this land which you now inhabit, shut in on all sides by the sea and the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; it scarcely furnishes food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage wars, and that many among you perish in civil strife. Let hatred, therefore, depart from among you; let your quarrels end. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.”

The discovery of oil by the British in 1908 ushered in the current trend toward international involvement in the area now known as Iraq. Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a 1919 account of his part in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I, called War in the Garden of Eden. He stated:

We steamed up past the Island of Abadan, where stand the refineries of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. It is hard to overestimate the important part that company has played in the conduct of the Mesopotamian campaign.

In the current conflict, military objectives were set against the backdrop of a perceived expansion of Al Qaeda, and were hardly questioned by the American public. In fact, for a time, to initiate dialogue or questions about the military objectives in Iraq was considered unpatriotic. However, the primary questions faced by any society contemplating war should be: What are the actual motives for deployment of troops, and conventional weapons to a distant military theater? What does the United States stand to gain by fighting to establish a new political regime in a foreign land? Who are the combatants and what do they stand for?

The American public has never been allowed to fully contemplate these questions in relation to the Iraqi conflict. If we are to have an honest discussion of why we are in Iraq, we have to ask the question: Are we justified in killing Iraqi people to gain control of their oil, and if so, what are the possible historical and spiritual repercussions of that choice? By waging war, we have separated the human family into groups of “us” and “them.” As it relates to American dependence on petroleum, have we projected our fears, our failures and our faults onto “them?” Aren’t we now attempting to wrest their resources from them under the guise of “fixing” them? America’s decision to declare war to obtain oil has been obscured by political rhetoric. Instead of descriptive terms, like ‘women’, ‘children’, or ‘the elderly’, citizens of the attacked country have been referred to simply as insurgents, Al Qaeda , or ‘terrorists.” By not thinking of these individuals as people, we inject suffering and death into their lives without compassion.

In September 2008 hearings before the House Armed Services Committee, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified as to the current status of the war in Iraq and the need for continued assessment of need for assets in Afghanistan. Ranking member Rep. Ike Skelton, D-MO, opened the proceedings with an acknowledgement that the strategy in Iraq has to change:

“First and foremost, let us remember that the idea behind this series of hearings has been to provide Members with a range of insights from former senior policy officials and academics because the impending transfer of administrations offers a potential opportunity to reexamine the nation’s grand strategy, and perhaps make some needed adjustments. ”

Congressman Skelton also acknowledged that the reasons for entering Iraq were possibly contrived, or at best mistaken:

I’m glad to see you both and believe that our nation is well served by your leadership. We should not begin this hearing without recalling how we got here. Iraq was invaded on incorrect information. The turbulent aftermath following the initial military victory was not considered, despite warnings of the aftermath, including two such warnings from me. Now we’re in our sixth year of attempting to quell this horrendous aftermath.

Testimony from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates enumerated the factions involved in the conflict and explored a variety of possible endgames and exit strategies for the war in Iraq, along with the need for allocation of military assets (troops) in Afghanistan.

PETRAEUS: Well, Congressman, as I mentioned in my statement, the stand-down of insurgent groups — or actually, more importantly, the awakening of some insurgent groups to actually actively oppose Al Qaida Iraq and the extremist ideology and violence that they had brought to these local communities has been a very important factor, as has, certainly, the stand-down of the Sadr militia, although we did continue to go after the “special group” elements throughout that time and, in fact, have detained a number of them along with substantial quantities of weapons and documents and so forth that very clearly lay out the role that Iran has played, the contribution that Lebanese Hezbollah has played as well with the Quds force.

Not once did Petraeus depict the military situation in terms of the people affected or the human tragedy involved. That aspect was lost in words like: “extremist, and insurgent.
Perhaps the angels of our better nature will compel us to begin to speak and think of the people of the Middle East as people. The terms we use to describe others dictate our behavior toward them. If America is a nation of believers, and if American might is based on adherence to the rule of moral and Biblical laws, then we have to want the same fate for Iraqi children as we want for our own. Real Christians will speak out clearly and vote for healing and reconciliation in the upcoming election.