A thousand tiny needles relentlessly pierced my skin over the course of what seemed like hours. After climbing back onto the Zodiac raft and dumping our snorkel gear, all of us were gasping at the accumulation of stings. Our (much too) amused guide reassured us that we'd merely encountered jellyfish remains. If you'd been stung by a live jellyfish, you'd know it, she promised.
We watched the welts and rashes emerge on our arms and legs, the evidence of the battery we'd just endured. Nowadays, I think of that painful swim whenever I listen to the news.
The battle and the battlefield
One of my favorite true stories was related by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization, about a rare moment of cease-fire in 1914 during World War I. On Christmas Eve, in the midst of the filth and misery and cold at the front lines, the German army quietly began to light trees and sing carols. The British soldiers, at first stunned and disbelieving, slowly joined suit.
During this strange twelve hour period, soldiers of both armies stepped out onto the battlefield, greeted one another, smoked together, played soccer, and shared photos of their families. They helped to bury each other's dead.
When I first read that story, it felt like a flash of beauty and light. Afterward, though, I found myself frustrated. If we human beings are capable of love and connection in the worst of circumstances, then how can we simultaneously exhibit such profound disregard for human life? If we can hit a pause button, just as those soldiers did, and simply step out of the surrounding horror — if this is indeed and in fact possible — then the tragedy is even worse.
If you're like me, the inhumanity of others, coupled with its variegated ways of finding us, both in person and via media, burns through your skin and bone. But it is only during these troubling days, when disheartening news stings and bites from every corner, that the whole picture actually seems clearer to me. All of this is our truth, and all of it must be faced and acknowledged. The best of a human being — and the worst.
Rifkin, musing about which aspect of this story is most uplifting, proposes: "[t]hey chose to be human." That choice is the battle. But the battlefield is within each individual. Within me.
On that day in the ocean, all of us in that Zodiac laughed. We passed around calamine lotion and exclaimed Did you sea that sea lion dance? Did you see the shades of blue on that fish? Yes, I saw! Through the muck and burns and shards, we found beauty and connection, the pieces of light.
The light is there. Let's find it. Let's fight for it.