Beware of narrow vocabularies and two-dimensional world

The great “back to school” migration has begun… public transport packed with excited or anxious children, proud or worried parents and other happy or annoyed passengers who observe this happy noise and energy. In fact I am building up my own excitement for continued studies in Latvia University which begins on Monday.

In Latvia (and many other post-communist countries) it is called the Day of Knowledge. I think about my studies with far more expectations for myself than for my professors.  They certainly have lots of knowledge in their scientific fields and different styles for conveying it to us but ultimately it is up to me to take it or leave it or store it for later. I love my field of study – theology and religious studies – because it wrestles with the truly important and relevant questions of human life. One classmate who would not describe himself as particularly religious commented that he came to this faculty to explore the big question of “Why?” Don’t we all?!

There is one thing that I absolutely love about being a student again. The libraries! There is not enough hours in the day and not enough days in year to take full advantage of these amazing archives of human exploration and resources. Our faculty has a small one but still it is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. Books, books, books… thoughts, concepts, reflections, facts, thesis, questions, answers, arguments, paradigms, worldviews, research… and words, words, words.

Recently I read a small, short manifesto book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, a prominent American historian. He wrote that “the effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal.”

He also reminded of authors and thinkers like George Orwell whose novel 1984 portrays a world where “one of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official vocabulary. Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.”

It feels like George Orwell novel when our societies/politicians/media/we become narrow in our vocabularies. Or words gets changed, diluted and become meaningless.

Word like ‘humility’ should mean “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Fōr whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Jesus Christ)

Word like ‘greed’ should mean “Do not covet” or “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Word like ‘dignity’ should mean “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” (Aristotle)
Where is your mental armory? How do you develop it?
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The beautiful old library at Trinity College, Dublin (from personal archive)

 

 

“This Little Light Of Mine” in Charlottesville and elsewhere

I pondered this post for days. I was in the USA when the tragedy in Charlottesville took place. While many are discussing the statements and views of the current president, Donald Trump, and other political leaders, I have tried to find the ‘ordinary’ voices. The local people from this university town; the voices of faith communities; the family of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed.

People are shocked about the extent of incivility and division. Many have experienced real fear. I know the emotion of fear. While never facing a large crowd of young men shouting Nazi slogans, I have experienced groups who try to intimidate and bully. The tactics are always the same. Physical intimidation, verbal abuse and determination to make you go home and never bother.

More recent experiences were in Latvia when couple of years ago I participated in a very small rally to show support and solidarity with those who help refugees. The gathered group was young, quite reserved and calm until these buff men showed up and attempted to intimidate the small crowd. I would certainly label them as ‘white supremacists’ who clearly expressed racist views. All dressed in black, they tried to provoke a physical reaction like shouting, pushing, shoving or punching. They did not get the reaction they desired.

Another time in Riga I went to a lecture addressing Islamophobia. Again the audience was mostly young, curious minds who wanted to learn, to ask questions, to discuss and to express their opinions in a civilized way. Right away I spotted a group who scattered among the audience – some sitting in a front row, talking loudly, interrupting the lecture and some sitting in the back to shout over the crowd. One of the guys in the back  shouting things about Muslims and terrorists and immigrants had a very thundering voice and I was almost scared to turn around to see his face. I felt like he would punch me if I dared to stare at him. He did not punch anyone but did throw around some chairs before leaving the room and called the lecturer “damned idiot who will go to hell”.

After the lecture I turned around to greet my friends – two young girls – who looked absolutely horrified. They were shocked to experience this kind of behavior. It is one thing to see it on You Tube, right? Quite another to experience in a real life. This may seem trivial and naive when there is so much actual violence and wars around the world. Still we, Westerners, have grown so accustomed to peace and civility that we are shocked when we see such an erosion or absence of it. I know my American friends feel the same way – they are shocked at the current level of public incivility and disrespect.

What if Charlottesville was my home? (or Berlin where a small neo-Nazi rally took place today?) Knowing that these out-of-town people will come and turn my city in a spectacle of bigotry and division. Stay away? Stay in my church and pray? Or go to the Emancipation Park and lock arms with the clergy, people of faith and all those singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

I recommend to watch the memorial service for Heather Heyer. Her father said with deep emotion: ” We need to stop all this stuff. We need to forgive each other. I think this is what the Lord would want us.”

Around the world we need to do many things and surely forgiveness is one of them. We are in a desperate need of humility, love in action, listening to each other, kindness and moral courage – in real life in real time. At the same time we need to have moral clarity about dangerous ideas. One friend posted on Facebook: “You don’t get to be both a Nazi and a proud American (added – or proud Latvian or proud German or proud Russian) We literally had a war about this.”

Rec Walk

Photos from personal archive

Dipping my feet in Americana waters

“What is the purpose of your visit? And how long are you staying?” are the routine questions I hear from US Customs and Border control upon arrival. I have quite the collection of memories from these annual interviews. Waiting in line for my turn, trying to decide which customs guy looks the friendliest, preparing my answers… I even have a list of my preferred airports to arrive in (Minneapolis, Portland) and my least favorite (Los Angeles, New York)

This time I traveled through Chicago and it was a late night arrival. I think the officer was ready to go home and not interested in long chats. “Where are you going?” was all he asked and stamped my passport. Surely he saw how many US stamps there are already. I hesitated when the customs guy asked if I have any food items to declare but decided that Latvian chocolate bars I was bringing as gifts did not count. Chocolate is not food, right?

I have never stayed longer than three months and have never lived in the United States. Besides visiting family and friends and speaking engagements, there are many reasons to enjoy it. America (even the US part of it) is just so big. I have lost count of the places visited but the wish list keeps getting longer and longer. I have yet to see the wilderness of Alaska, the mountains of Colorado, the museums of Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Statue of Liberty (if I don’t count seeing it from the airplane) and the list goes on.

It is no secret that Europeans and Americans often differ in their views. I would describe our relationship as mutual ‘I really like you but you frustrate me. And at times annoy’. It is sometimes complicated but, no doubt, we care about each other’s opinion. How can we possibly avoid it when so much of American gene is of European descent?! My American friends ask me what Europeans think about their international image, policies and politics. My European friends ask me what is going on in America. Especially after this summer trip I am expecting a lot of questions.

When there are things that frustrate me about the US culture, I start countering it with the things I like. Frustrating ones first? This is a big nation and very self-sufficient. It annoys me how many Americans still do not realize how interconnected and interdependent the world is. For better or worse. Americans can be individualistic to the extreme. It annoys me when so many who have the means and money to travel, have no desire to visit other countries and learn about other cultures. It annoys me when people here complain about first-world problems and many think they are poor. I challenge their definition of ‘poverty’.

It annoys me when Americans talk about their government (as dysfunctional as it often seems) as tyrannical and authoritarian. Again I want to challenge this definition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘authoritative regime’. I was born in a tyrannical and authoritative system (the USSR) and I know the difference. Of course, there is abuse of power and corruption and deep rooted injustices but which embassies people line up to? Where do they expect to find liberty and opportunity and choice and free expression of themselves? For sure, the US is still at the top of the list where people want to immigrate.

And my list of positives? The number one is the acceptance and welcome of the immigrant and foreigner. Yes, it is not perfect but human beings are not perfect. Still, this land is beautiful because of its diversity of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, political opinion and ancestors. Few weeks ago there was an International Festival in Burnsville, Minnesota and it was great. Music, dances, cultural performances, food, kids activities. Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Somalian, Nigerian, Brazilian, Mexican… you name it. The last performers was a Latino band which got the whole crown dancing. And Latinos can dance! Just like Africans, their bodies just know how to sway with the rhythm.

Besides the beauty of the land, the diversity of its landscapes and its interesting history, I like the energy of this place. There are so many interesting ideas floating  in the air and people like to dream. I like the entrepreneur spirit and the innovations. I like the arts, music, books… I even like the optimism of Americans and the attitude of “why not?”, instead of “why?”

And going back to the freedom issue… I remember the first time I landed in the US and walked outside the airport in Seattle, Washington. I breathed in the air and it felt very different from what I had experienced growing up. It was not just a physical feeling of freedom, it was something deeper. I felt like I am appreciated just the way I am and I can express myself any way I want. And the policeman walking outside was actually a public servant and on my side.

One day I would like to read this poem on the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Most difficult peace with ourselves

My claim to fame – meeting and talking with Brian “Head” Welch from Korn. I was never a huge fan. I could not relate to their darkness and anger and even less to the destructive lifestyle, but few years ago I heard Head perform his solo album “Save me from myself“.

Talk about a story of redemption! Now two books later, re-joined with Korn and traveling the world with a very different kind of message – one of brokenness, hope and more humility – Head caused some controversy when he reacted emotionally to the death of his good friend, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. On Facebook page he wrote “Honestly, Chester’s an old friend who we’ve hung with many times, and I have friends who are extremely close to him, but this is truly pissing me off! How can these guys send this message to their kids and fans?! I’m sick of this suicide shit! I’ve battled depression/mental illness, and I’m trying to be sympathetic, but it’s hard when you’re pissed! Enough is enough! Giving up on your kids, fans, and life is the cowardly way out!!!

I’m sorry, I know meds and/or alcohol may have been involved, I’m just processing like all of us and I know we are all having some of the same thoughts/feelings. Lord, take Chester in your arms and please re-unite him with his family and all of us one day. Be with his wife and kids with your grace during this difficult time.” Later he added, “I didn’t mean to sound insensitive about Chester. Just dealing with a range of emotions today. Love you Chester. I’m pissed that you did this, but I know this could have been me back in the day after getting wasted one night.”

That’s just it. It could have been Brian Welch, it could have been me, it could be many people I know. We come from very different worlds and backgrounds but there is something we all experience and struggle  with. The ability to forgive yourself or even harder – to love yourself. Self-hate and self-rejection, in whatever form it comes, is one of the most common human experiences. I have never had to battle a serious depression, mental issues and have been fortunate to avoid lots of self-destruction but I do know what I have felt or thought many times looking in the mirror or reflecting on my innermost thoughts and motives and past actions.

There is something else Head and I have in common – we are pursuing peace with ourselves, others and God. Started following the way of Jesus in very different circumstances but with the same desperate need – to be saved from ourselves. To be saved from my pride, selfishness and self-loathing among other things. We want peace in the world but this personal inner peace is the most elusive. To love your neighbor is often easier than loving yourself. To love yourself just as you are because you are loved by Someone who knows you even better yourself. To forgive yourself as you forgive others and are forgiven.

I was heartbroken when I heard of Chris Cornell‘s (of Audioslave and Soundgarden) death in May. Why did I cry and listen to his songs again? Besides coming from the grunge scene, why did it feel so personal? Yes, I liked all the bands he was in and I absolutely loved his vocal talent. More than that – I was touched by the lyrics Chris wrote. He had a special gift for raw poetry. I think of all “Audioslave” fans who have sung along these lines “You gave me life, now show me how to live… And in your waiting hands, I will land, and roll out of my skin”

Yesterday I was driving across the state of Minnesota and all radio stations were playing Linkin Park. The one I did not hear and my favorite is “What I’ve Done“. I really like the official video and the lyrics,

“So let mercy come
And wash away
What I’ve done

I’ll face myself
To cross out what I’ve become
Erase myself
And let go of what I’ve done

Put to rest
What you thought of me
While I clean this slate
With the hands of uncertainty

I start again
And whatever pain may come
Today this ends
I’m forgiving what I’ve done”

I pray for comfort to those who mourn the death of their idols, friends, family, parents, sons, daughters! And I understand the overwhelming emotions Head expressed when you want to say to dear friends… I don’t wish you to “rest in peace”. I wish you to “live in peace”.

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Brian “Head” Welch from Korn and Sunny from P.O.D. sharing about their fears, hopes and faith

 

A few thoughts on World Refugee Day

Simply overwhelming statistics. It is year 2017 and there are estimated 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, including 21 million refugees worldwide. According to UNHCR, the top three nations where refugees come from are Syria (5,5 million), Afghanistan (2,5 million) and South Sudan (1,4 million). People are driven out of their homes by conflict, persecution, environmental disasters, famine and extreme poverty. More than half of them are children.

How do you look at these statistics? The numbers are too large for my brain to compute. My first thought is that Latvia has a population of 2 million and it is so small in comparison. These numbers are also people I have met, stories I have heard and lives of my friends that have been changed and disrupted in profound ways.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. Not only a reality in far away places, it is here and now. Even in Latvia. On one hand it has been much discussed topic but still there is so much ignorance, indifference and misunderstanding. For example, you would think that all of the world’s refugees have come to Europe where in fact the top hosting countries are Turkey (almost 3 million), Pakistan (1, 4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran, Uganda and Ethiopia.

For many years I was working with and helping refugees in Thailand and often getting frustrated, even angry at local people for being so prejudiced and selfish. Now back in Latvia, I feel the table has been turned and now my own nation is facing the test of compassion, sympathy, generosity and kindness. The test is so small compared to what others are facing. Latvia is neither in the direct path of this refugee movement nor is it the common destination. Where is Latvia, right?

If not for my other commitments, I would go and volunteer at one of the refugee centers in Greece or Italy where the situation is much more critical. When I meet people who have sacrificed their time, resources and even health to serve on the Greek islands, I thank them because they are doing what many cannot and others will not.

There are things that make me proud to be a Latvian and others that make me ashamed. And on the generosity and hospitality side we still have a long way to go. We still feel like we don’t have enough and we still feel threatened. More obviously – we are not a trusting society. For good reasons which are too many to explain here but it is the one trait which really infects my beloved country and which needs to be healed and overcome. What can help us to become more compassionate and trusting? What and who can open our eyes to see how much we have?

As a Christian, I could give a long sermon about the basics of my faith and what it should do for practical life in community. Of course, I could go on and on about Jesus as the greatest revelation of God’s good and loving will. And I can give lots of wonderful examples of church communities that have embraced refugees and are doing all they can to be the good neighbors. But I can also give examples and point to the fact that there is as much ignorance and prejudice in the church as there is in the whole society.

Today I want to give thanks to a grass-roots civil society initiative in Latvia which started with some passionate people and then became a Facebook group and still works as a small (maybe not so small?) but very active and hands-on movement of people who care. The group is called “I Want to Help Refugees” (Gribu Palīdzēt Bēgļiem) and it has helped the refugees arriving in Latvia in so many ways – from basic needs like food and clothing and doctor visits to special events celebrating cultural diversity and taking children to movies.  (Yes, there is government assistance and programs but it does not go nearly far enough to help these families start a new life in a foreign country).

Final thought on practical steps? Let’s start by saying these simple words “Welcome to my country” and then show that we mean it! Do to other’s what you would like them do to you!

Syrian refugees watch as Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond visits Al Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan

Photos from internet

Latvian:

Tā ir drausmīga statistika. 2017. gada vidus, un šobrīd pasaulē ir apmēram 65 miljoni cilvēku, kuri spiesti atstāt savas mājas un arī dzimtenes. To skaitā ir 21 miljons bēgļu. Saskaņā ar ANO datiem, Sīrijas karš vien ir licis vismaz 5,5 miljoniem cilvēku doties bēgļu gaitās. Visā pasaulē cilvēki bēg no kara, vajāšanām, apspiestības, vides katastrofām, bada un galējas nabadzības.  Vairāk kā puse no bēgļiem ir bērni.

Pirmais jautājums – kā man reaģēt? Normālām smadzenēm tie skaitļi ir vienkārši par lielu; mēs nespējam to ‘sagremot’. Man prātā ienāk doma, ka Latvijā ir 2 miljoni cilvēku, un pašreizējo pasaules nelaimju kontekstā mēs visi būtu bēgļu gaitās. Visi bez izņēmuma. Vēl es domāju par saviem draugiem dažādās pasaules malās. Tās ir viņu dzīves, kas ir pilnībā izmainītas un izjauktas. Draugi Taizemē, kuri bēga no etniskām tīrīšanām un militārā režīma Birmā. Draugi Ēģiptē, kuri bēga no reliģiskiem un etniskiem konfliktiem Sudānā. Mani draugi no Sīrijas, kuri atstāja savu dzīvokli iztukšotu un aizslēgtu, atvadījās no vecākiem, atstāja savu biznesu un ziedoja visus iekrājumus, lai bērniem būtu drošāka un labāka nākotne.  Viņi jau vairākus gadus dzīvo Rīgā.

20. jūnijā tika atzīmēta Pasaules Bēgļu diena. Agrāk tā asociējās ar problēmām kaut kur tālu pasaulē. Tagad tas ir aktuāli šeit un tagad, arī Latvijā. Kaut gan temats ir ‘karsts’, apspriests un debatēts, joprojām ir daudz aizspriedumu un arī vienaldzības. Piemēram, attieksme, ka Eiropa nes vislielāko slogu, palīdzot bēgļiem, vai ka visi bēgļi grib braukt šurp. Lielākā daļa bēgļu, kā visos laikos, grib braukt mājās, bet diemžēl tas nav iespējams. Turcijā uzturas apmēram 3 miljoni bēgļu, Pakistānā vairāk kā miljons, Libānā miljons, tālāk seko Irāna, Uganda un Etiopija.

Otrais jautājums – ko darīt? Vairākus gadus dzīvojot un strādājot brīvprātīgo darbu uz Taizemes un Birmas robežas, kur palīdzēju bēgļiem no Birmas, es bieži saskāros ar vienaldzību, arī korupciju un pat nežēlību pret bēgļiem no vietējo iedzīvotāju puses. Esmu gan dusmojusies, gan bēdājusies. Atpakaļ Latvijā, es atrodu sevi otrā pusē starp “vietējiem”. Mana valsts un mani tautieši piedzīvo līdzīgu līdzcietības un solidaritātes pārbaudījumu. Salīdzinot kaut vai Itāliju un Grieķiju, mums šis pārbaudījums un izaicinājums ir ļoti mazs. Latvija nav īsti pa ceļam, un arī nav nekāds ‘sapņu galamērķis”. Kas ir Latvija, un kur tāda atrodas, vai ne? Turklāt ziņa jau drošvien aizgājusi pa neoficiālajiem kanāliem, ka bēgļi te netiek gaidīti, un ka izredzes uzsākt Latvijā jaunu un stabilu dzīvi ir diezgan niecīgas. Mani sīriešu draugi ir ļoti pateicīgi, jo saņēmuši ļoti lielu atbalstu un palīdzību no draudzes, bez kuras viņi te vienkārši nevarētu izdzīvot. Kaut vai atrast dzīvokli, ko īrēt, kad lielākā daļa noliek klausuli vai aizbildinās, kad uzzin, ka ģimene ir no Sīrijas.

Es lepojos ar savu latvietību un reizēm par to kaunos. Viesmīlība un dāsnums nav mūsu stiprā puse. Mums ir tik spēcīgs ‘nabadzības’un ‘upuru’ sindroms. Mums liekas, ka pašiem nepietiek, ka mums pašiem vēl tik daudz kā trūkst (jo nedzīvojam kā norvēģi!). Mēs esam ļoti bailīgi un vēl vairāk – esam sabiedrība, kas neuzticas un uz visu skatās ar aizdomām. Lai gan zinām vēsturiskos iemeslus šīm aizdomām, skepsei un neuzticībai, mēs turpinām ar to būt ‘saindēti’, un tas mūs pamatīgi bremzē.

Es varētu rakstīt garus sprediķus par šo tēmu – ticības pamatuzstādījumiem un to praktisko pielietojumu ikdienas dzīvē. Mans galvenais piemērs tam, kāda izskatās Dieva mīlošā un taisnīgā griba sabiedrībā, ir pats Jēzus. Un es varu minēt daudzus piemērus, kā individuāli kristieši un draudzes visā pasaulē, arī Latvijā, palīdz un dara to, kas labiem līdzcilvēkiem un kaimiņiem pienākas. Bet varu minēt arī daudz piemērus, kā mūsu dzīvēs un draudzēs ir tikpat daudz aizspriedumu kā pārējā sabiedrībā. Runājot par bēgļiem, “kristīgo vērtību” karogs Latvijā ticis vicināts maz.

Tomēr Latvijā ir daudz “labo samariešu”, un parasti šie cilvēki nenonāk ziņu slejās. Jo mēs jau zinām, ka pie mums uzmanības centrā ir negatīvais. Šoreiz gribu teikt milzīgu ‘paldies’ konkrētai cilvēku grupai – biedrībai “Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem”, kuru var atrast arī feisbukā. Šie domubiedri ir paveikuši ārkārtīgi daudz, un viņi ir pilsoniskās sabiedrības daļa, kas nesēž un negaida, ko darīs valdība vai kāds cits, bet prasa – ko darīšu es pats?

Daži praktiskie soļi? Būt labāk informētiem. Dzīvojot Taizemē, es visu laiku saskāros ar faktu, ka taizemieši nezināja, kas notiek viņu kaimiņvalstī, un kāpēc cilvēki no turienes bēg. Parasti komentārs bija tāds, ka “tā ir vienkārši slikta valsts.” Es galīgi neesmu eksperte cilvēktiesību, juridiskajos, ekonomikas, drošības, migrācijas, globalizācijas, politikas un citos jautājumos, bet es zinu pietiekami daudz un  saprotu, ka mums šobrīd stipri dalās viedokļi par to, kā attiekties un ko darīt, un kādas ir problēmu saknes. Protams, ka visi vēlas, lai kari un katastrofas beigtos, vai vēl labāk – vardarbīgi konflikti nesāktos.  Bet, ko darīt līdz tam “miera”laikam?

Mums jāmācās būt atvērtiem, un darīt to, kas ir mūsu spēkos. Mēs nevaram palīdzēt visiem, bet it sevišķi tiem, kuri nonāk pie mūsu mājas durvīm, mēs nevaram teikt “Ej uz nākamo māju, varbūt tur tev atvērs. Kaimiņi ir bagātāki un izpalīdzīgāki”. Un vēl – viesmīlība un atvērtība neattiecas tikai uz nelaimē nonākušiem cilvēkiem, kas devušies bēgļu gaitās. Tas attiecas uz visiem, kuri pārceļas uz dzīvi Latvijā darba, studiju, mīlestības, ģimenes, intereses un dažādu citu iemeslu dēļ. Prāta Vētra dzied angliskajā versijā “Welcome to My Country”, bet mums pašiem tie vārdi neiet tik viegli pār lūpām vai no sirds. vai  Esiet sveicināti Latvijā!

Portland and London united in grief and love

A skateboard. Something that is simply fun even though I cannot find my balance. A bakery. Somewhere to go if you have a sweet tooth like me. A bridge. Something that connects and helps you to get from one side to another. Borough Market. I get hungry just thinking about all the delicious food in that area.

I never thought these things would bring tears to my eyes. Another week, another terrorist attack. Even for those of us whose communities have not experienced this kind of trauma and grief, it has become a tragic norm to read the stories (Manchester, Cairo, Kabul, Portland…), to watch the videos and to be deeply disturbed and heartbroken. Last week during the horrific attacks on London Bridge and around the Borough Market I was in Latvia and there was and still is so much sadness here. Yes, there have been too many of these kind of evils in Europe, Middle East, Asia, USA, Africa and elsewhere but this one felt even more personal and shocking.

Not only because so many Latvians have visited London and for many of us it is one of our favorite global cities that is so beautiful and friendly and fascinating. Of course, many also have friends and family who live and work in London now, including my own brother and his family. I know the streets they walk, the trains they take, the pubs they hand out in and the shops they favor.

The other tragedy that broke my heart was the horrible attack on the city commuter train in Portland, Oregon where on May 26 two guys got stabbed to death because they intervened on behalf of two young girls who were being insulted because of their ethnicity and religion. The attacker was yelling that “Muslims should die” and the girls should get out of “his country”. Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche died from their injuries when they were stabbed in the neck and the attacker was arrested while he was still yelling hateful slurs and acting proud of his actions that “that’s what liberalism gets you.”

And this happened in another one of my favorite cities (I admit I am a city girl). If I lived in the US, I would want to live in Portland. Yes, it rains there a lot (so it does in London) but it makes everything so green and beautiful. The rivers and the valley is gorgeous and Portland has been called the “City of Roses” for a long time because its climate is ideal for growing roses.

There is so much in common between these two recent tragedies and the way these cities are now united in grief. On the side of hate and exclusion, there was extreme views, violence, attacks by knife and stabbing anyone who gets in the way or tries to defend the innocent. In both places the attackers were yelling that they are defending some kind of higher cause and exposing their views who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Who is in “my country” or “us” and who is “them”. In both cases believed they were “righteous”.

On the side of love and embrace, there were people who were living one of those simple and everyday moments of life. Whether it was coming home from work on a full train or enjoying a nice summer weekend and hanging out with friends, lovers and family. And then there were the “ordinary” heroes. In Portland it was the guys who tried to de-escalate the situation and stood up to protect the girls. In London, there was the Spanish guy, Ignacio Echeverria, who tried to help a woman, used the only things he had in his hand – his skateboard – and lost his own life. Or the brave Romanian chef, Florin Morariu, who hit one of the attackers with a crate and then helped 20 people to hide in his bakery.

There were many more heroes and most will remain unknown and to them we are so grateful. To the people who experienced these horrors and will have the memories for the rest of their lives, we are so sorry. And to those who lost their loved ones, words cannot express…

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Photos from internet

 

 

Helpful or harmful to talk about painful national past?

This is a common and valid question. When do the wounds, losses and memories from time ago truly become things of the past? When does it heal and hurt no more? When does dwelling on the past become harmful and we get stuck in it? Increasingly many people in my global circle of friends are reflecting on these issues.

I was giving a lecture on principles of reconciliation and one Swiss student in Latvia asked me, “Why do we need to talk about these tragic things that people and nations have done to each other? Doesn’t this just stir the pain and keep it alive? Doesn’t it actually harm good relations and infect the present situation?” Again a very good question most often coming from the youth who are 25 and under. When I was 18 or 20, I would have asked the same thing as I often felt that the older generations talked too much about the past. I only had the future to worry about.

In my case, with time and experiences around the world came a desire to see the bigger picture and also a realization that actually we do inherit national memories from the generations before us. We claim that it is “not our problem” and that we are “not responsible”. But we look at the reality around us and see that ‘yesterday’ still has a strong effect on ‘today’. And then we start to take ‘tomorrow’ more seriously because it cannot be taken for granted.

I use the word ‘yesterday’ because in this part of the world we live in very young nations. I don’t mean cultures or ethnic identities because there is long history here but many of our republics are celebrating 100 year anniversaries. Republic of Latvia is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary on November 18, 2018 and Estonia on February 24, 2018. Lithuania has a much longer history of statehood but on February 16, 2018 it will celebrate 100th anniversary of the Restoration of the State.

100 years is not a very long time. I did not know it when I was a teenager but I understand it now because my grandmother is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. And her generation is still around with their memories and stories and things to teach and pass on. In this life span there have been exciting highs of free society, high achievements, big dreams and deep despair of war, bloodshed, holocaust, ethnic cleansing. 50 of those years Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania have been occupied by a Soviet regime and forced to live under a system which was foreign and destructive. Not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally and socially.

Metaphorically speaking, we still feel this Soviet system poison in our ‘veins’ and we need to flush it out if we want to be healthy. How? Part of it is calling things their real names. For example, the Soviet times taught people not to trust anyone and how to become hypocrites. Saying one thing but thinking another and then doing something else entirely. The private and public lives often did not match but everyone knew it and pretended. The system was good at pretending. And we still find it hard to trust anyone and we still struggle with lots of corruption because our psyche has been so corrupted.

Another thing we need to flush out is “us” and “them” mentality. Again, the Soviets were masters of this art and they had good disciples. “International” by name but “chauvinist” by nature. And history was so politicized and used for propaganda and brainwashing that we actually could not have an honest truth seeking, grieving, forgiving, apologizing and reconciling.

So, you see we are dealing with questions which should have been addressed before but were delayed. The first step in any reconciliation process is truth seeking. If there is a conflict, pain or resentment, it is a given that something happened. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it effect people? This part of the homework is super hard. Many people want to skip over it completely. One journalist asked, “Can we have reconciliation first and then try to find out the truth?” Sorry to disappoint but it is not possible. That would be called “avoiding the topic” or “sweeping things under the carpet”. And that is exactly what most people and societies do because it seems much easier.

(I am not talking about situations where there is real violence and war and brutal conflict. Of course, you first need to have a ceasefire and stop killing each other and let things calm down before you can even address these deep issues. The basic need is always to preserve people’s lives and take care of their basic need like food, shelter and safety. You do not hold Truth and Reconciliation Committees in a battle zone.)

Last week I wrote about a Reconciliation event in Riga. There I had a conversation with a Latvian whose ethnic background is Russian. He is 21 years old and he was completely convinced that “if we truly want to have better relations with each other, we need to start by apologizing. If we only come together and talk about the facts but take no personal responsibility, we will get nowhere. When we come together, we need to ask each other for forgiveness.”

He wants a good and long future for Latvia and all people in Latvia and for those who will come to live here. So do I. The same for Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians… and you can add your country to the list. This is exactly why we need deep and honest reflections about ‘yesterday’ if we desire a good ‘today’ and better ‘tomorrow’. And start apologizing and forgiving where needed.

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Spring time in Rīga (photos from personal archive)