Robi Damelin knows it is all too alluring for the media to depict an extremist screaming at the top of a mountain about a greater nation or the mother of a suicide bomber saying she’s proud to have given her child; the alternative does not sell as well as the sensational. “But I can tell you of all these mothers who’ve lost children,” she says. “I don’t care what they say to the media. I know what happens to them at night when they go to bed. We all share the same pain.”(1)
Damelin is a mother who knows this pain well. Sitting beside her, Ali Abu Awwad, a soft-spoken young man thirty years her junior, knows a similar pain. Robi and Ali each tell stories of loved ones lost to violence, stories that happen to intersect at a place that puts them at painful odds with one another. Each grieves the loss of a family member caused at hands on opposite sides of the same violent conflict. For Ali, filled with the loss of his beloved younger brother, that place of intersection was once filled with thoughts familiar to many in his situation: How many from the other side need to die in order to make my pain feel better? Yet bravely, he began to notice something else at the crossroads of his side and theirs. For both Robi and Ali, it was the tears of the other side that would change the way they tell their stories.
Some stories, as Kafka prescribed, indeed provide the ax for the frozen sea inside us. Rather than crafting for themselves stories that add to the cold sea of hatred and despair which devastated them, Robi and Ali tell of the common grief that cracks the frozen wall between them. They are now a part of a growing network of survivors on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict who share their sorrow, stories of loved ones, and ideas for lasting change. “It’s the shared pain that allows you to open to another place completely,” says Robi. “If you want to be right it’s very easy,” adds Ali. “But to be honest is very difficult. Being honest means to be human.”(2)
Their story brings something I have been thinking about personally into a much broader place. Namely, the stories we tell ourselves powerfully shape our worlds: I am a victim. I am entitled. I am right. I am abandoned. I am in control. These simple narratives rest at the heart of the things we do and say, quietly but decidedly shaping our worldviews, our identities, our humanity. They at times act as self-fulfilling prophecies, narratives which keep us locked in worlds we may even claim we want to leave: I am devastated. I am betrayed.I am on my own. The tale of Ali and Robi shows two people willing to change the more common narratives of power and prerogative to the much less comfortable narratives of shared loss and weakness: We are human. We are grieving. We know the same pain. And as such, they are finding humanity where there was once only suspicion, relationship where a great divide often reigns, and a common story which chips away at a great frozen sea.
Unfortunately, ours is a world often suspicious with regards to common narratives. Even common stories of human existence can be seen as controlling attempts to manipulate or undermine the individual’s story, which is viewed as supreme. The master narrative is similarly dismissed, rejected on grounds of totalitarianism. According to Robert Royal in The New Religious Humanists, the current philosophy is one that favors “petites histoires, that is, personal stories as the only locus of rich meaning open to us.” In this view, he continues, “all the old grands recits—Christianity, Hegelianism, Marxism, even liberalism—are dangerous totalizing and potentially terroristic illusions.”(3) The pervasive postmodern mindset prefers an individual approach to seeing the world, speculating on our origins, perceiving our destinies—independently.
But without undermining the power of personal stories, can we be satisfied with them alone? If petites histoires are really the only locus of meaning open to us, are we content with the effects of being held within those walls? Is the world the better for it? Robi and Ali, for one, would remain enslaved and frozen in a bitter conflict without the commonality that opened their eyes to a deeper humanity. Moreover, without a grand narrative that can truly answer humanity’s grand questions, the individual story only axes away futilely at a frozen abyss it can never crack.
The most remarkable gift of the master narrative I have chosen to tell and retell is that the storytelling is not over. I am instead freed to hear and tell my petites histoires in light of the whole story, which is yet unfolding even as it proclaims a definitive end. Which means, that sometimes the stories I tell myself are mercifully corrected by far greater I am statements than my own. That is to say, the quiet narrative that insists I am alone is told beside, “I am the good shepherd who searches for even one that is lost.”(4) The subtle fable of personal control is confronted by a story of life, death, and resurrection; a remarkable beginning as an infant in Bethlehem and a far more remarkable end. Stepping both into history and petites histoires, God as storyteller shows us what it means to be human; with one Word, breaking through every frozen barrier.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad with Krista Tippett “No More Taking Sides,” Speaking of Faith, February 18, 2010.
(3) Gregory Wolfe Ed., The New Religious Humanists (New York: Free Press, 1997), 98.
(4) Cf. John 10:11-14, Luke 15:1-10