I’ve been thinking about the terrible events that have taken place in Paris and have found myself wondering why we are so stirred up about them. Don’t get me wrong, it has been a terrible tragedy, but why are we so shocked?
Innocent people were killed and that’s awful, but it’s not uncommon. Only two weeks ago on Remembrance Sunday we were honouring millions of innocent people who were killed in wars. Today people in horrifyingly large numbers are being killed in Syria and in other wars around the world. Others are dying of hunger. Daily, innocent people are killed in car accidents. So why does a relatively much smaller number of deaths so horrify us?
In Paris a small group of men and women carried out this killing and then died themselves, and that’s not so unusual either. Again, on Remembrance Sunday we were honouring men and women some of whom set out to kill large numbers of innocent people knowing that in all probability many of them would die in the attempt. It happens regularly in times of war. So why are we so horrified at the events in Paris?
Again, don’t get me wrong: the events in Paris were a terrible tragedy and it’s appropriate that we ask ourselves why they happened and how we should respond.
But there seems to me to be a much deeper question that is being asked of us and which we are not wanting to hear.
We in the West live in a very materialistic culture: it is all about having things, now; it is about the immediate gratification of our desires. We shop for things ‘to die for’, like chocolate, not recognising the irony of our language. For what it’s not about is any serious consideration of the reality of death and dying. We avoid death like the plague [which of course is very much how we view it] or we trivialise it.
We prefer people to die out of sight; and when they do die we don’t want to attend a funeral and witness the burial or cremation of their body. We prefer a thanksgiving service which celebrates their life and makes little mention of their death. It’s not wrong to celebrate someone’s life but it is not healthy to avoid the reality of their death with all its implications for us: namely that we too will die; that life for all of us is finite; that shopping and pleasure seeking will one day end and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Death may well take us totally by surprise and quite unprepared, but it is the fact of our death which most powerfully asks the deep question of the meaning and value of our life.
Faced with the prospect of imminent death our priorities change, and we realise what is really important to us, often they are things that we have given insufficient time to before and that are not much valued in our materialistic culture. A nurse in Australia who cared for dying people wrote a book about her experience. She wrote about the five chief regrets of the dying. In her experience men and women faced with imminent death said:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier
Now the events in Paris portrayed on our television screens and in our newspapers have thrust the reality of death, the precariousness of our grip on life, and the shallowness of our materialistic preoccupations, right full in our faces, in our own backyard, and we don’t like it. It challenges some of our most dearly held assumptions. It obliges us to face something we otherwise spend a lot of time avoiding: this might happen to us; there is no hiding place. No wonder we are so shocked and angry. No wonder we vent our anger on those who have made us look at these things. No wonder we want somebody to blame for having done this, and of course those who did the killing are an obvious target. They must be punished, not only for their actions, but even more because they are drawing our attention to an achilles heel that we prefer to ignore, thank you very much. It won’t be long before we are blaming God!!
But we could respond differently. We could see this as a ‘wake up’ call. We could allow God to use it as a ‘wake up’ call to us. And the upcoming season of Advent would be quite a propitious time to do that, n’est pas?