Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Enigma of Violence

The Enigma of Violence

Meaning displaces us. . . .
~ Mahmoud Darwish

"It has always been the turtle that has stuck in my mind," writes Gerald May in the sixth chapter of his book The Wisdom of Wilderness, which I have been reading as part of an online discussion at The High Calling Blogs.

I haven't been able to lose the turtle either.

May's images of the turtle are the signal flares of my need to understand what I fear is a puzzle: our impulse to commit sudden and mindless violence.

* * * * *

In Chapter 6, "Violence at Smith's Inlet", May describes a place where beauty and violence co-exist, one inside the other, where nature sometimes misfires yet as often as not hits the mark.

In the natural order of things observable, we read that "[h]undreds of thousands of fish were killed at Smith's Inlet. . . [t]ens of thousands of birds. . . [m]illions of insects. . . [h]undreds of box turtles. . . [m]aybe another person. . . ." (May, pp. 109-110)

"Maybe another person. . . ." Why is the fact that even one person was killed at Smith's Inlet only as memorable or even less memorable than the destruction of a particular turtle on a particular night?

* * * * *

Native Americans might tell you, if you take the time to listen, that our earth was formed on a turtle's back, and so is symbolic of Creation.

Further, they might point out, the turtle never leaves its shell — its home — behind, and where home is, so is shelter, shelter as protection. . . from the elements, from predators, from violence. A place where life is within, and within which life can withdraw in self-defense. Or out of fear.

The turtle's shell, a kind of all-enveloping life jacket, is tough, not meant to crack, enduring. Meant to last as all things do that are strong like steel. Like belief in God, if it's strong enough, is meant to last forever.

Native Americans might add, the turtle is symbolic of longevity also. With longevity, if the order of things is natural, comes experience after experience after experience that, we are told as children, we need to gain wisdom that protects us from repeating our mistakes and mad acts. Wisdom to understand that in the natural order of things, beauty, too, can hold the secrets of violence that gives itself up to destruction.

The turtle, as Native American literature and Aesop's fable remind us, wins the race. It is content to be patient, accepting, to take life one day at a time, and when it is satisfied with the wisdom it gains in one place, it's able to move on easily, if slowly, to another, because it never leaves its home behind. It carries its own protection.

Too, the turtle, because of its association with water, is elemental, in motion in stream or on land, moving about its environment as the earth around the sun, sensing, intuiting, picking up the wisdom in clues its few predators leave behind. We, in contrast, lurch and lumber. We need equipment to breath under water. We need faith that often is broken by need for reason without reason. We need protection from each other.

Have you ever looked at a turtle's back? Its markings, Native Americans might let on, if you show enough interest and listen intently enough, are God's map of stars and sacred writings, divided into 13 sections corresponding to the 13 phases of our moon in a year. On the shell I have, I count 14. Perhaps I miscount. But maybe not. Perhaps the 14th shows up on occasion on the back of a particular turtle. Like a blue moon sometimes shows up in our sky.

I can only read a few stars, the ones that stamp Orion's belt in the duskiness, the love-star Venus, the Scorpio with a sting in its long-jointed tail that is my birthday sign. I don't always have enough light to see enough in the stars to divine the sacred writings in clouds, to foretell when love or death might come, or how, to know when violence might strike, or not. And so sometimes I cannot protect those I love most in the world.

I've known what it's like to have shelter, and to put on a shell to protect me against fears real and imagined. I've also come out of my shell when I've had to, and been awed by the natural order of all things beautiful, the way bees pollinate, flowers strike poses in spring, leaves fill up with then drain of color, a comet strikes across the moon's face without leaving a mark.

I've been on the underside of the turtle, too, in what Native Americans might call the underworld, what we might describe as Hell. It's a mire, a place where reason decays. It's where the enigma multiplies.

* * * * *

God gave the turtle both a shelter and a softer unprotected underside.

God gave us shelter, too. He named it the Garden of Eden. For some reason, He didn't stop with Eden. He didn't stop after creating Adam in His own image. He also gave us soft and unprotected undersides we don't always know we have.

Eve, lacking the hardness of experience, and Adam, tempted by Eve tempted by the Devil, ate. . . and defiled, and beauty never again was seen with quite the same eyes.

* * * * *

May writes of both "the actual memory of what I had seen" of the turtle, "the image of the defiled creature on the rock amid the beer cans, the cigarette butts sticking out of it, the flies." He also describes what "my imagination" conjured to understand "how it might have happened, a vague picture of four young men sitting on the rock around the not-yet-dead turtle with the beer and cigarettes, one of them holding a knife. . . ." (May, pp. 110-111)

Dead, the turtle becomes for May, "the sacrificial symbol of all the violence that had been a part of my life. . . from childhood fights to adult outbursts of sarcasm and scorn. . . the harsh derision I used to call humor, my competitiveness, rebellion, envy, on and on." (May, p. 113)

His mind, May goes on, "still cries out, Why?"

My own, I add, still looks for answers.

* * * * *

I'd like to think it would be enough to be like the turtle, to just accept that things happen and in time move on. But just as May's turtle got stuck unexpectedly one night, a knife rending its home and life equally and forever lost to senselessness, I get stuck.

I'm stuck right now.

I want to ask the young men May imagined doing violence to the turtle, "Do you think a turtle lacks a heart? Does not feel? Where is your heart? Do you feel?" And when the one doing the rendering stops or at any point before then, I want to ask of the onlookers who observe and do nothing, "Does the mess of turtle blood and sand and cigarette butts you've helped create, even without touching the knife, give you some experience on which to draw lessons for the rest of your life? Will you pass on those lessons to your children? And they to theirs?"

I'm stuck.

I don't understand how a man in a helping profession can kill 13 and wound 38 on a military base in Texas where one must surrender and lock up all personal weapons. I want to know why we describe such a man, as the killer's brother does, as a "peaceful, loving and compassionate person", an individual of "devout" belief and faith. (Washington Post,  "Officials Cast Wide Net in Search for Answers", November 8, 2009) I want to believe that it mattered to take the shooter, who was said to invoke his own god's name as he aimed and fired, to a hospital where good men and women worked together to save his life.

He created us in His image. Beauty and violence, the one secreted inside the other.

* * * * *

The killing of the turtle didn't just and only happen.

The murders at Ft. Hood didn't take place on a dark November afternoon.

So, how is it possible we fail to see the shadow within the shadow on a sunny day?

In the absence of protection for our exposed undersides, is it enough to reach out and touch the empty shell, turn it over in our hearts, do more than "just sit" and, as May does, hold it in our hands and let our mind become "quiet, still, and free"? (May, p. 122)

Quiet enough, still enough, free enough to silence questions?

Quiet enough, still enough, free enough to hope for healing?

Note: I wrote an earlier piece about violence, not connected to the book discussion. You may read it here.


Anonymous said...

i wonder and think perhaps there was only beauty until adam fell and knowledge of good and evil. and then there was violence. when i can focus on something beautiful, even though it is surrounded by evident brokeness and sin, i can see part of what was...before, i can partly see now, what was, and what is to come in Him.

as far as the reading...i am waaaay behind in the book. and it is due back at the library.

so i am going at at turtle's pace but hope to, eventually, get it done

Laura said...

This is beautiful contemplation, Maureen. I especially love the symbolism of the turtle. I was not aware of this part of Native American lore. Very effective metaphor.

May's seeming indifference to the woman's death bothered me, as did his admission to resuming fishing after breaking the fish's jaw. It makes me wonder...why are some violences easier to let go of?

I have to believe the turtle made such an impact because he witnessed it in such an intimate way. While the woman's death was an impersonal news item. The emotions stirred by the turtle resurrected emotions from Vietnam. It made me wonder if it was because of the helplessness of the turtle...did he see the Vietnamese women he describes as victims? Would be hard not to. I'm sure he was exposed to many more disturbing episodes of such while in Vietnam, and this affected his reaction to the violence he relates in this chapter. I have to believe that the turtle represented violence he saw done to human beings in Vietnam, and therefore am able to forgive the apathy about the woman at Smith's Inlet a bit.

Anyway...I'm rambling. It was a disturbing chapter. I tried to say that simply at the end; we weren't created to accept such disturbing acts. It was not The Plan.

Name: Roberta said...

I too enjoyed reading your sharing, your thoughts on violence, and the information on turtles/shells/Native American beliefs and customs.
The Ft. Hood tragedy, as with other violent acts, may be something we can never fully understand ... in a way, to me, it's like trying to understand what would be so horrible in a person's life to lead them to such a desperate measure, like suicide. Especially when they had many loving family members close by, and support all around... to live within a cloak of such turmoil inside oneself must be so utterly horrible that it drives people to horrible acts...murder, massacres, suicide, etc. It surely must seem like a living hell to them.

While I was reading the info on the symbolism of the turtle/shell, I couldn't help but think of an assemblage piece I did a month or so ago... Lapsarian, The Fall ... I used a turtle shell on the figure representing Adam in it... how "Godsidental" is that?! It all fits so well with the symbolism you mention, and is info I'll be saving to perhaps offer another way of looking at this assemblage piece...thanks for sharing it!

Maureen said...

nAncY, Laura, and Roberta, thank you for taking time to read my post and leave such interesting comments. I enjoy all the perspectives we have on this subject that repels and fascinates.

Roberta, your reference to your use of the turtle shell intrigues me, and I will be sure to follow your link. While on an art crawl in the Virginia countryside this past weekend, I visited one of my favorite artists, Jeanne Drevas. She used a turtle's shell to create a "murtle" (a kind of mummy figure). My husband and I couldn't resist it and brought it home with us.

Name: Roberta said...

Maureen ... I'd love to see a photo of that "murtle" piece sometime! It sounds very interesting.