I am a missionary/aid-worker. I live far from my family, and my time spent with them is precious. I am sustained by memories: of an afternoon at the park with my brothers and sisters, goofily kicking a tennis ball around in the light of a golden fall afternoon, turning clownish somersaults and performing recklessly acrobatic acts of spontaneous joy, with much laughter; of my 4-year-old niece who asks me hard questions like, “Why do I not see you for a long time?” and easier ones like “Can I watch ‘Fwozen’ again?” Or my 2-year-old niece sprinting laps around the bed, shouting with laughter when I catch her. These are perfect moments.
This is the stuff of life—joy, love and beauty. This is the good for which we live, that gives a form for the rest of existence. Whatever of our lives feels like work, whatever we experience of drudgery, that which is simply duty and carries no inspiration—is compensated for by these moments of beauty. They are the music that turns the prose of existence into a song of life.
Remembering “chase and laugh” games with my niece leads to another memory, an evening when the light of the setting sun seemed almost palpable as it streamed across fields of wheat ripe for harvest. I had joined young Aila and her mom for a walk and Aila began a game of “sneaking” up behind me until I turned to tag her, then she would shout with laughter and run away. We shared a perfect moment. I was in northern Iraq; Aila and her mom are Assyrian Christians. ISIS was three miles away, with only a thin line of Kurdish soldiers between. And life was there, singing its song.
ISIS has left no doubt of their intent. Not only are they fanatically brutal, they have taken pains to advertise it all across the world. They have destroyed the lives of thousands of men, women and children. They have killed, raped, tortured, gutted—committed the most wanton destruction imaginable. And left none of it to the imagination, broadcasting videos of their actions everywhere. Thanks to this strategy, and the nightly news cycle, our minds are filled with images of death and destruction, of rubble and bodies. This, we are assured, is what life is like in Iraq. In Syria. In the Middle East. Thus, not only have people’s lives been destroyed, in the minds of millions of people, the very possibility of life is destroyed. That is, according to the facts we are presented, life as we value it doesn’t exist in these places.
Our nightly news cycle has bludgeoned us with constant images of death and destruction. Nothing has been left to the imagination—not even good. What happens when we lose our ability to imagine good?
Hate. Graham Greene wrote: “Hate [is] just a failure of imagination.” We feel it now, vaguely, this failure; we vaguely feel that something has been taken from us, we vaguely feel ourselves on the brink of an abyss. There is a present urgency to name what is happening, to name what we are fighting: “war on terror;” “clash of civilizations.” Like a cornered boxer, we are hunkered down and have latched on to the enemy; it is the thing that fills our horizon. But in becoming consumers of darkness, we are beginning ourselves to be consumed by it. And we are afraid.
How do we free ourselves from the cycle of headlines, that feeds us body counts, timelines, in an endless repetitive stream? How to free ourselves from fear? By remembering what we are fighting for—the same things men and women throughout time and the world over, have fought for: love, joy, beauty—the stuff of life.
While ISIS and its apocalyptic vision has successfully cast a shroud of fear far and wide, we, too, are complicit. We have not done what we could to add to the love, the joy, to add to the beauty. Our imagination has been spent in imagining the worst. It must be redeemed.
In the very beginning of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien spends significant time describing the Shire, the beautiful homely home of the hobbits. He wanted us to come to love it enough to understand, and feel in our guts, that it was worth risking everything for because, eventually, that would be required.
That’s what is required now. The question is: Do we love enough to do it? Do we see enough beauty, enough joy, enough love to risk everything?
Yes, our imagination must be redeemed. We are called on to add to the beauty, to see that lives that have been portrayed to us in brutal photos and videos are also lives like ours. We know this in our heads because we believe in human rights, but we must also believe in human beings. Until we feel in our guts that those are our sisters and brothers being attacked, it won’t get us far. A work of imagination is required, because all we see on TV are nameless faces, distorted by terror, desperate and legion. We need to be able to pick out one of those faces, one man in the crowd, and imagine him laughing, imagine him on a golden day, face turned to the sun as he plays with his young daughter, imagine him our brother. A leap of faith is required, to believe that this beauty exists in these lives too, even though they are lives we have only seen through the lens of war.
And so we must reimagine the moments of beauty in our lives and believe they are worth fighting for; we must imagine these moments all over the world. We must listen closely for the song of life everywhere. And then, just as you wouldn’t hesitate to rush into danger to save your young daughter or son—not out of hate or fear, but love—it will be clear what we must fight for, and how that battle must be fought. As Isaiah 58 says, “If you extend your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness and your darkness shall be as the noonday.”