Why It's OK If You Have No Idea What To Say About The Paris Attacks
I was at a Chili’s when I heard about the attacks in Paris.
I was searching through the deeply unnecessary electronic menu on our table for something that might not make my butt explode eight hours later and making jokes with a couple friends about how much everyone loves watching Jennifer Lawrence fall at awards shows — when a friend pointed over my head at one of the 36 flat screens.
I looked at his face. He seemed confused, suddenly sent adrift.
“Sh*t,” was all he said.
I turned around and read the ticker tape at the bottom of the CNN broadcast. It read:
Attacks in Paris. 100 dead. Hostages taken.
I hesitated, slowly grasping what I was reading. Then, finally, I spoke.
“Sh*t,” was all I said too.
I felt like a terrible person having that be my reaction to something so horrible. I’m a writer, a comedian, I should have something better to say than the thing I say when I stub my toe on a radiator.
But the truth is, in the face of mass murder, we are all inarticulate.
The three of us stared at the monitors in mindless silence, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. We didn’t speak a word that wasn’t “sh*t” or “f*ck” for a full minute or two.
And when we finally peeled our eyes off the digital horrors that glowed on the bald cranium of the oblivious man attacking a burrito below the screen, we just looked at each other uncomfortably.
In moments of tragedy, there is nothing that lays bare the inadequacy of words better than company.
We wanted to say something to each other -- to make a cynical joke, say something wise, world-weary or f*cked-up-on-purpose -- anything to break the tension of having to be around people when you learn about something so horrible.
We looked at our phones instead.
The three of us took shelter in scrolling through news of the events, discussing the theories and reports coming in, and comparing the death toll estimates from various news agencies.
Basically, we found something, anything to do.
We found a way to take a semi-active role in the tragic events rather than be stuck with the passive, abstract gut-punch of having to accept the reality that this sort of violence is a part of the world we live in.
Because the fact that people who were once children laughing at the sound of someone farting decided to one day stalk through a crowd of happy people they don’t know and fire their portable murder machines at anything human and still living is genuinely incomprehensible to me.
And I just don’t know what to say about things I find incomprehensible.
Yet, I suddenly felt the impulse to go to Facebook and write something like, “My thoughts and prayers are with Paris,” or put that French flag filter on my profile picture, or post, as 70 percent of my Instagram followers did, that now-ubiquitous Eiffel Tower peace sign image.
But none of that made sense to me either.
And don’t get me wrong: I think doing all that stuff can have the pretty amazing effect of lending support to a country that is tragically wounded right now. It is a way of mobilizing mass utterances of love, and I’m happy so many people did it.
But I couldn’t somehow.
Because, for me, my urge to write a sentence of support or to post a picture would have had very little to do with the actual victims of the massacre and too much to do with my own need to say something, anything, that would free me from the sort of speechless vertigo I felt and still feel regarding the events.
Worse, it would have felt like I was sort of “filing away” the events in a cabinet in my heart marked “tragedy” and declaring to myself I was still a good person.
But I don’t want to file the events away. And I don’t want to think about whether or not I’m a good person. I want the violence to stay real, to stay volatile in my system and, honestly, to continue to hurt me.
The very fact that I was considering writing the phrase “thoughts and prayers” goes to show how I would have just been borrowing other people's words.
“Prayers”? What the f*ck do I know or care about prayers? The last time I prayed was when I wanted an N64 for Christmas.
I felt that urge to say those words nonetheless, though -- to mimic the behavior of what I believe “The Ethical Man” (who, by the way, looks a lot like one of my uncles in my mind’s eye) says and does. And through mimicry, to try to become him.
But I’m not “The Ethical Man.” If anything I’m “The Confused, Inarticulate, Lost Idiot-Boy” just trying his best not to give in to my nearly irresistible urge to find a way to stop thinking about this week’s example of heart-stopping cruelty.
A lot of writers say writing helps them "understand," and, of course, I agree with that to an extent. After all, here I am writing all this stuff in an attempt to understand.
But in my experience, writing -- and talking -- also carries the risk of distancing me from what I am silently grappling with.
Because if I can articulate something concisely, then I can emotionally put it away.
That’s why this piece is so f*cking long, guys. And I apologize for that. It’s just really hard to articulate how and why you have become hopelessly inarticulate.
So, to wrap things up, if I have anything to say about this weekend’s detestable acts of violence it is this:
If you had no idea what to say or how to act when you learned about what happened in Paris or Newtown or Syria or Charleston or Palestine or Israel, well, you’re not alone, and you are not a bad person.
Sometimes grief just gets stuck in your throat.