If you know me on Facebook, you’ll know that my profile picture is currently a smiling photo of myself with my son peeking out over my shoulder from a baby carrier. Meanwhile, many of my friends’ smiling Facebook faces are overlaid with the translucent blue, white, and red stripes of the French flag: a gesture of solidarity with the people of Paris, who have endured great tragedy this week. I’m not alone in keeping my photo in its original state, but as I scroll through my feed, my face definitely stands out for its lack of color.
Why haven’t I changed it? Facebook makes it easy – there’s a little button I can click and it’ll give me a new “temporary profile photo” so I can join everyone in expressing sympathy. But I’m not going to do it. It’s not that I’m not upset by the horror that unfolded in Paris this week. I’m stunned and hurt. So many lives ended so senselessly. So brutally. If it can happen in Paris, it could happen anywhere. It could happen here. It could be me.
But it does happen anywhere. Everywhere. Every day. There are places in this world where death tolls like that are a weekly occurrence, and most of us don’t ever hear of it. Or if we do, we dismiss it because that’s just how it is over there, in those places we’ve never seen. They’re not cities, they’re “war zones” and “rebel strongholds.” How else to explain the lack of Facebook sympathy and outrage from my peers over suicide bombings in Beirut, the day before the Paris attacks? Or the millions fleeing unceasing horrors in their home countries, only to find closed borders? Or the systemic racism facing minorities here in America?
It’s overwhelming, and I can see the need to block out what you can, so you aren’t permanently paralyzed by your emotions. What cuts through are the tragedies that make you think “that could have been me.” Or a loved one. It’s human nature, I guess, to feel more deeply about an event when you can identify with the people involved. I know it’s true for me, but that truth makes me uncomfortable. It’s absolutely not right that it takes the deaths of people who look like me, in a place I’d feel at home, to stir my sympathy and support. It bothers me that the tragedies that break my heart the most always fit the same pattern. It bothers me a lot. I need to do better.
I don’t like the Jen who reacts to tragedy in a selective and privileged way. I don’t like that I’m more emotional about things that happen in Europe than in Syria. I don’t like that it’s easier for me to see myself in someone’s shoes when those shoes are on white feet.
Every single person killed in every single bombing or shooting or conflict was once a “me.” Every one. They matter. They count. They have to. Someone is mourning them. Someone’s life is torn in half by the loss of a son or a wife or a friend. They all deserve to be acknowledged.
No flag photo can say all of that. So I’m saying it here instead.