Personal Essay: Carol Quillen

 

On Monday evening, members of the Davidson community gathered to mourn the lives lost in Saturday’s tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Elayna Daniels ‘21

A Shared Future

While at a future time, I will respond to your questions, in this column I want to recount an experience I had many years ago and that continues to challenge and inspire me. Thank you for reading.

Well over a decade ago, I spent three weeks in Jerusalem with a group of people who shared an interest in religion and public life. That interest was all we shared. Our group included Muslims, Christians and Jews from around the world, an American Buddhist, agnostics, atheists, and others.

At the start of the trip, this group agreed on very little. We didn’t agree on right and wrong. We didn’t agree on how to dress, or what to eat, or when to pray. We didn’t agree on how to raise children or on appropriate gender roles. We told conflicting stories about the same events. We didn’t agree on what was happening around us, right before our eyes.

Add to this that we were traveling around Jerusalem, on some of the most sacred, contested ground on the planet. So, we didn’t even agree on where we were. Things, places and people had at least two names. Was it the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary? Har Habayit or Al –Haram ash Sharif? Were we in greater Israel or occupied Palestine?

Was it Hakhrazat HaAtzma’ut or the Nakba, Independence or catastrophe? In the course of one conversation, the same person could be called a hero and a traitor; or a holy man and a heretic; a victim and a perpetrator; a prophet and an apostate.

This trip had all the makings of a full-blown disaster.

Fortunately, our group had to spend a lot of time in transit: walking, riding in a bus, waiting in line. During these times, in these “in-between” places, we inadvertently stumbled onto common ground. “Where’s that inscription from?” someone would ask. “I love that song!” another would shout. “Who wants falafel?”

In spite of ourselves, we found fleeting opportunities to connect. And, miraculously, we seized them.

These small connections—listening to jazz, a love of poetry, an interest in yoga—helped us see each other differently. Where before we saw only the hard lines that starkly divided us, now we found shared territory. We saw each other in light of rather than in opposition to our own experience. Iva, Alejandro and Izmir loved Mozart. Jill and Mahmoud had studied Maimonides. Rahel taught all of us yoga.

Through these small shared interests, we overcame our fear just enough to leave ourselves open. We lowered the steely, monolithic identities—national, ethnic, and religious— that, like shields, had divided and hidden us, one from another.

So, when Iva a Bosnian Catholic said, “That looks like my old school,” Izmir a Bosnian Muslim didn’t immediately mention his Catholic neighbors who had burned down his house. Instead he looked at the building where Iva had pointed. And he talked about his friends from his school. And when Izmir stood in Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount—a site sacred to three world religions—and quietly whispered, “Can this piece of stone be worth the centuries of blood spilled in its name?” Everyone—Jew, Muslim, Christian, Palestinian, Israeli, American, Bosnian, Serb, atheist—felt the weight of his words.

And then, even on the most divisive topics, we opened up. Even when our sense of self depended on our story winning, even on these topics, each of us actually opened up enough to hear other, different stories.

As we took in different stories, we discovered our own inner contradictions. We saw the pieces of ourselves that our dogmatic narratives had suppressed. We realized we were more than the rigid identities with which we had armed ourselves. We learned to value those parts of ourselves that those rigid identities had silenced. We went from either/or—either independence OR catastrophe, either mosque OR temple, to both/and. And at that moment, we became capable of imagining a shared future.

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