This past weekend has been a memorable, eventful Memorial Weekend.
First, despite predictions of the monsoon arriving to the Katmandu Valley on June 10th this year, it sure seemed like it was two weeks early: the rains, which have for the past week been off and on, are now mostly on. Today, there is a gentle shower and the traffic noise is muted, the air is clean once again. The downside is my socks are wet, and my pants spattered with mud. Most of the “load-shedding” (rationing of electricity on the grid with scheduled district-wide blackouts) has been lifted, and the cybercafés are open and back to normal operating hours. I sleep much better as my fan overhead spins all night long. I typically wake up in the dead of night in a sweat whenever the power is shut off and fan comes to a stop (any images you might have of me as Bogey in Casa Blanca, with my shirt half opened and sweat running down my temples is understandable as I have lost 20 lbs these past two months—Play it again, Shyam).
If the arrival of the monsoon is not cause célèbre enough, this weekend marks the installment of the new Prime Minister, three weeks after the Maoist Leader Prachanda (aka Puspa Dahal) unexpectedly resigned. The new Prime Minister is appropriately named Madhav Nepal, so if anyone should ask you an “is-the-Pope-Catholic” question, you can reference the obvious with the response “Is Nepal the Prime Minister of Nepal?” Anyway, Mr. Nepal is of the 3rd largest political party (the UML, United Maoist-Leninist Party) which, despite the name and communist vantage, is actually very conservative. The upper-caste dignitaries rule these large, long-established parties, and so they will not champion, nor even support meaningful reform. Now that the tables are turned, the Maoists will now use the minority parties to obstruct even conservative measures. So, politically it is looking like the democratic experiment may well stagnate as the country slides into multi-party, multi-ethnic bickering. Nepal awaits a strong man to unite the country before India starts slicing up the melon and engorging it bite by bite.
However, the disturbing event of this weekend was the bombing of a Catholic Church in Patan, which abuts Katmandu to the south. In Nepal, Saturday is the only day off for school children and the working stiffs, but there are a myriad of holidays. People will visit Hindu or Buddhist temples and shrines every day, or any day they feel inclined, but Saturday is the Sabbath in Nepal when Christians attend church or mass. And so, last Saturday, a woman in a black sari attended a mass at the Church of the Assumption in Katmandu (Patan actually). In the middle of the service she asked a woman next to her to watch a satchel/purse for her until she returned. Inside was a bomb embedded with nails. When it exploded, two young people (a tenth grade student and a young newlywed) were killed and fifteen injured. The church was not seriously damaged, and a memorial service was held in the same sanctuary the next day. Prime Minister Nepal (you remember Mr. Nepal!) visited some of the injured in the hospital. No one has stepped forward to claim responsibility for this act.
When it comes to bombings, everyone thinks “Maoists”, but more often than not the bombs are deliberately set to frighten not to kill. This was unquestionably and anti-personnel device! If there is “collateral damage”, the Maoists often apologize and sometimes make compensation. The modus operandi for the radical Youth Communist League or the Communist Student Association is one of confrontation and blatant publicity. To date no one has claimed responsibility. If it were a Maoist organization, and I have my doubts, they now realize that they haven’t won any supporters.
This is so out of character with the Nepali frame of mind and their tolerance for religion that the newspapers are full of letters and editorials decrying this senseless act. There are Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries, and Christian churches strewn all over this city. True enough: up until the people threw out the King establishing a Republic a year ago, Nepal was the world’s only Hindu nation. But the Hindu majority also played a large part in ousting the King in this “modernist revision.” Of course, there are also a few Hindu fundamentalists who regard the King as an avatar (an incarnation/manifestation) of the Lord Vishnu that harkens back to the divine right of Kings in the West. These right-wing zealots are juggernauts of the kind who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. They are all over India, perhaps some in the rebellious Terai of southern Nepal. The Christians are not strong in the Terai, so it doesn’t make sense that they would vent their anger on them.
There is yet another theory–underworld extortion. I don’t know much about this except that Som is very nervous about standing up to one particular ethnic group in Nepal in which there is a strong syndicate, the Nepali “Sicilians” if you will. We had one boy that we bent over backwards to help, bringing him down from the mountains, enrolling him in a good school, and installing him in a hostel. When in the 10th grade, we told his rich uncle that he would have to assume financial responsibility of the hostel, he flew into a rage, and Som insisted that WE cover the cost for his final year of high school instead of running any risk of retribution. We unloaded him after he graduated. The interesting thing about this ethnic group is that they are from the mountains where a lot of missionaries have had conversion successes, so it is conceivable that it was more than just money, but a warning to all that they want their people to preserve their religious identity.
Everyone I ask has a different take on “who dunnit,” but religious slayings like this hit me hard personally because it is so much against what I hold sacred. I temper any thought of blame with trying to understand the mentality of the guilty. Last summer in Knoxville TN, a disturbed, estranged man Jim Adkisson walked into the Unitarian-Universalist Church there carrying a guitar case while the children were performing “Annie”. He opened up the case, and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and blasted away, killing two people and injuring five others. During the memorial service the next day, the children bravely sang, “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow.” In the front seat of his truck they found right-wing, hate literature. He was a loner, divorced and unemployed, and of course, in his eyes, the liberals in America were no doubt to blame. Somehow, I could only feel pity for him and for the large percentage of the Rosh Limbaugh crowd just like him. Mr. Adkisson was simply an uneducated southern white male with low self-esteem, trying to get by, and with his welfare checks about to run out, he was becoming more desperate by the day. He could have easily found his way into any cult, ala Charles Manson, David Koresh, or James Jones, or he might have been referred by a social worker for counseling. Tim McVey, also an estranged loner, received his inspiration from visiting the ruins of the well-armed Branch Dravidians at Waco, TX. Jim Adkisson, instead, received his prophecy from Rosh Limbaugh, et al.
Not understanding what is to be gained by killing innocent children and parishioners, I have been mourning the slaughter of the innocents over the past few days by myself. Without Mary Jane here, I grieve alone. And so yesterday, when I received an unexpected email from Rev Jill McAllister of Peoples Church in Kalamazoo, I poured out some of my pain to Jill. There I was in a cybercafé, quietly sobbing, with tears flowing as I typed away—I am sure everyone thought my lover had left me! Jill is a true minister…her caring response has helped me to share this with you. Her message, right on key, is that there are some things that we may not be able to understand, but we must learn to accept the world as it is, the bad with the good. Acceptance! I wallow in self-pity of being unable to make sense of the incomprehensible while others are suffering real loses. Writing you about these experiences is a part of my therapy: if not my grieving, then my own blindness?
Now my grief, a la Kűbler-Ross, turns to anger: Don’t tell me that Rosh or the Grand Dragons represent the Christian right or that Osama bin Ladin is a devout Muslim! They are self-serving ideologues, religious opportunists. To see them desecrate the very thing that is intrinsic to all beliefs (e.g., the Sanctity of Life, The Golden Rule, God is Love, Love thy neighbor) for their own personal causes and vendettas is so blatantly immoral. Where do these High Priests who feed racial and political hate get their inspiration, their conceit? It is not from fear nor ignorance as Osama and the WTC highjackers were well-to-do, well-educated, and fearless…yet, blatantly filled with venom. We can be sure that their hate did not originate from any sense of compassion or concern for their fellow dispossessed countrymen! These people are driven by hate and feed it to those in desperate situations. Tim McVey and Jim Adkisson, as heinous as their crimes are, were simply acting alone (or nearly so)—victims of their own hate. They worked alone, not as part of a greater framework. For them I feel great pity and sorrow. They are not the High Priests of Hate, the incarnates of Hitler, Stalin, or Milosovic, promulgating hate and vengeance, commanding the armies, and exploiting the minions to commit genocide.
Rev. Marilyn Sewell of the Portland (OR) UU Church in her recent Blog also mentions the Knoxville massacre while highlighting a newly recognized psychological disorder designated “Embitterment” by the American Psychological Association (APA). She prefers to call it “Ahab Syndrome” after the anti-hero in Moby Dick. As you recall, Capt Ahab sacrificed his ship and his crew to “get back” at the great white whale for taking his leg. Rev. Sewell then references a woman, suffering from Ahab Syndrome, who was losing custody of her children and was “striking back” at her ex-husband by pushing her two young children off a bridge (one died, one was rescued). Revenge through displaced anger is what we are witnessing. This is not “the Devil made me do it!”
Now, imagine a Palestinian widow who has just lost her only son to a rocket barrage. What does the future hold for her—she is a liability to her husband’s family, remarriage is not a possibility, begging on the street may be her only option. Where is there hope for her? Imagine her embitterment, ripe for exploitation.
As disturbing as these cases of bombings and child-murder are, is the pronouncement by the American Psychological Association that “embitterment victims” cannot be effectively treated or rehabilitated. Once a bomber, always a bomber? I think you can say the same thing about end-stage cancer. Maybe we need to do a better job with early diagnosis and treatment of embitterment before it becomes end-stage. Perhaps it is too late to redeem the high priests of embitterment, and one can only be put them away; but for Jim Adkisson and the woman in the black sari, I can’t help but feel that the APA simply doesn’t know how to rehabilitate them with medication and a couch…they have yet to introduce acceptance, love and hope into the DSM treatment book. We start by reaching out and providing some hope to ward off the desperation and fear.
What I have witnessed working with the poor in Nepal is that opportunities to work and learn provide them with that hope. Hope does not spring from entitlements or relief programs; it comes with empowerment whether it is a warm embrace or a micro-financing venture. Certainly, mothers and babies need WIC, children may need a free breakfast, and families need health coverage, but don’t think that these are providing hope. This is simply relief aid, and never more than just enough to get by. What the West is doing (or NOT doing) in Darfur, Somalia and our inner cities, is simply maintaining the status quo. It is disempowering, and doesn’t address the issue of hope.
When we educate just one child per disadvantaged family, we have instilled hope for their future. When we then tell them that they must provide one school uniform or a daily lunch, they are empowered to help in educating that child and feel like a participant. As I visit the schools, parents come up to me with their children in uniform beaming with pride, pointing first to their child and then to themselves, and say, “Ama” (See! I am the mother of this student). When I think of the woman in the black sari, she is anything but a proud Ama. She must have been just as desperate about her own condition as any jihadists blowing herself up in a crowded mosque.
I believe Capt Ahab could have reconciled with the whale. Where were his loved ones, his wife, children, mother? We are the repair mechanics and we have all the tools. Loners need love and hope, too, counseling and casseroles as needed. Ahab was a loner like Jim Adkisson and Tim McVey. I think we can forge a world in which genocidal armies have few recruits if we reach out and embrace everyone with love and hope and appropriate assistance.
As for the high Priests such as Rosh Limbaugh: he is a marshmallow! He is in pain, addicted to drugs, fame and fortune. He too is hurting inside (of what no one seems to have analyzed….maybe it is about time some of us ask). I believe Jesus would turn the other cheek and disarm Limbaugh with love and charity. I think that Obama knows the danger in attacking Rosh instead of embracing him, but I am not so sure his advisors do. Too many of us cheer when Obama unloads an assault, and that looks good to the pollsters and his advisors. But Rosh is speaking to millions, and so we all have to own the problem and reach out to his audience. But there will always be more Roshes and more Osamas if we don’t all reach out to their base. In the end, Limbaugh will die a withered old man destroyed by hate, or become a repentant convert, like so many fundamentalist preachers who have strayed.
A repentant Rosh? To have witnessed the evolution of George Wallace from a powerful racist governor to a wheel-chair bound man reaching out to the southern black, admitting he was wrong, is to realize that Ahab syndrome can be treated, even cured, even in seemingly end-stage scenarios! We all have the seeds of transformation within. It takes years to be sure, but it comes from trying to understand “the other side.” And how much easier and quicker to grasp if others are reaching out to help! A few months ago I read an article about an 80-year old white man who was on the battlefront in Selma in the 1960s bashing black heads. When asked about his transformation, he admitted that it had taken decades to slowly come to understand his own ignorance. Finally, he searched out and located his black victim in the Potomac area, and asked for his forgiveness. He received it and was warmly embraced: I can still picture the photo of two old men, smiling with tears in their eyes, arms around each other as if they were long lost brothers. Those are the acts we need to focus on. Such life stories give us hope for even the high-priests: political hate mongers, racial bigots, religious zealots and for all sides in the Middle East. When Barack Obama came out and defended his Church, explaining the vehemence of Rev. Wright, he used his grandmother’s fear of black men as a set point for those outside the Black Experience to understand the fear and resentment that others face. I don’t know what it is going to take to awaken Rosh, but somewhere deep down is a lot of hurt and fear. Let us tap into it.
I want to give a final example about reaching out. Gaelle is a young French woman who contacted me through e-mail because she wanted to visit Nepal and help. She has been volunteering with ANSWER here, tutoring at Hopeful Home and visiting schools to assist the children. She has learned English since her early childhood, lived in the US, and speaks English with only the slightest accent, and has been a wonderful addition. Her understanding of America far surpasses my understanding of France, so our conversations have more often been from my vantage point, trying to understand hers. Although we share many political views, when asked about the national prohibition of Muslim girls wearing headscarves in the French public schools, Gaelle assured me that this is now passé and widely accepted. However, the French witnessed the despair of their Muslim community a couple of years back with their own version of Watts: the conflagration of the Paris ghettos in the suburbs of Paris. So passé, or not, I countered, “Au contraire,” and asked if banning headscarves hasn’t led to further alienation of French Muslims and the opening of private Islamic schools in France? “Probably,” she admitted. Then I asked, “Well, are Christian girls in France allowed to wear necklaces with a cross, and Jews yamikas?” She couldn’t reconcile this and conceded my point. Where’s the reaching out to the Muslims?
I have not heard of anyone proscribing dirty smudges on the forehead of Christians on Ash Wednesday or forbidding the wearing of green or a tee shirt “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” on St. Patrick’s Day. So, prohibiting headscarves seems to be simply an expression of religious and ethnic intolerance. What we need to be upholding in the schools is “respecting self and others” by banning ball caps indoors, wearing trousers at half mask, bare mid-drifts, body piercing and tattoos? (So, what do you do with a kid with a swastika emblazoned on his arm? Serious family counseling, to start!) No Doubt Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson had the foresight to protect religious freedom because they all lived in France during times of wide-spread religious persecution! But not just in France: it was while Ben Franklin was in England that personally invited Joseph Priestly, a Unitarian minister and renowned scientist of the time (he discovered oxygen), to migrate to America when an English mob burned down his church! Someone told me that Obama’s grandmother was a Unitarian, and I think about his father a Muslim, and he ends up in a Black Protestant Church in Chicago. Today we can go church hopping as if we were tasting ice cream flavors at Baskins and Robbins…what a wonderful thing to have so many choices! Be able to choose and reject, sure beats burning at the stake. Despite the bombings, we have come a long ways.
Postscript: Well, two weeks have now gone by since I started this missive. I keep waiting for the investigation into the bombing of the Church of the Assumption to reveal the bomber and her motives, so I can have closure as well as this epistle. At last we have some news, although not complete, it seems that our bomber is named Sita Sitaula, and sure enough she is a loner. She has an intercaste marriage (unacceptable by many), married with no children, her husband is working abroad in Malaysia, and she seems to be estranged from her husband’s family. Somehow, she was talked into bombing the church by the Nepal Defense Army, a radical fringe group that purports to be Maoist, but is not part of the Maoist Party. It is really a band of thugs that lives on extortion. It murdered a Catholic priest last year when he refused to pay them. In a similar MO, the NDA targeted the Catholic Church when it refused to pay “protection money.” The leader of the NDA is on Nepal’s Most Wanted List, but he has to date eluded capture. I am still unclear how Sita was talked into targeting the Church, but Som thinks he read in the Nepali papers about her alienation from her Christian in-laws and that she may be mentally unstable—another desperate soul who just needed some help and never got it.
Flashing back to arranged marriages in Nepal in my previous letter “A Wedding”, how else can such unions be so successful? They are accepted as the modus operandi by the culture, and accepted by husband and wife, and from this, love can grow. I can also assure you that a Nepali man, just as in the West, has no comprehension about who his wife is, and vice versa. That question is never considered! Neither do either of them ask the question, “Who am I?” They accept things as they are, and go on with life…eventually love and understanding will grow, I am sure. So, I think we can overcome a lot of things, even embitterment, if we forego the understanding, and simply begin to accept our differences. We can even celebrate them together. Our Nepali college students, with no comprehension of Anglo-Saxon traditions, are sending their sponsors Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine emails, trying to participate in our holidays. Likewise, in their letters our children are describing their festivals to us. Even though we don’t understand, we share and revel in each other’s holiday joy.
How can we get to acceptance? Usually what we react to, what we fear and what we hate, is simply something within us we don’t understand, or worse, something we don’t want to accept. It all comes down to not so much to understanding others, but understanding ourselves (don’t worry if your husband doesn’t understand you—that’s not even the issue!). I will be the first to admit that I don’t understand myself: Why I have to do what I do? From whence derives my passion? Why am I so deeply and personally affected by all that goes on around me? or How can I be so ego-centric on the one hand and so caring of others on the other? I think I would go insane if I really went all out and devoted myself to understanding Me. But like sex, I think I have come to accept and take pride in the whoever I am, however weird, and use my time in ways that are meaningful to me. This may be a “shallow existence” ultimately, but I can accept that, too.
And so for me, the means is to explore and ultimately accept the incomprehensible in ourselves and in the world. The ends is sharing and helping each other, celebrating the differences. I even think one can come to love oneself and others this way. So, loving your neighbor as thyself, and even thine enemies, is a natural derivative of an expanding love within.
When we walk out the door, or write a letter or an email, or place a call, we have an opportunity to connect with the world. We have all had that experience when a smile, a kind word, or a funny story, not just makes us smile, but makes our day. Think how much more sharing our joys, our sorrows, our fears, our understanding and our resources, can bring us together. In fact, this is the only reason I can come up with for why we are here on this planet: sharing and caring for others, and you can extend it to the entire biosphere. I was reinforced in this belief when I met with 30-40 of our graduates and college students last week. They all wanted to form their own organization in order to begin giving back to Nepali society, “We have to help others, like our sponsors helped us!” If any of you thought you were simply educating a needy child, you sold yourself short! Thank you all for sharing your resources, your letters and photos, your lives with the children. You have produced enlightened, sharing, caring children of the highest order. Thank you for sharing my sorrows, thoughts, and joys here. Your sharing and caring have great power and are the source of my strength…and the strength for many others. Don’t forget it.