We are tempted to reduce life to a simple search for happiness. Happiness, however, withers if there is no meaning. The other temptation is to disavow the search for happiness in order to be faithful to that which provides meaning. But to live only for meaning—indifferent to all happiness—makes us fanatic, self-righteous, and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others. We must hope for grace, for our lives to be sustained by moments of meaning and happiness, both equally worthy of human communion.
Got milk? This calf in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta does. But there are times and places where milk isn’t so easy to come by. Chris Hedges, in his book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, relates one such story.
The setting is Goražde, a predominately Muslim town in Bosnia, and the time is the early 1990s, when the Bosnian Serb army has put Goražde firmly under siege. Most ethnic Serbs have fled town, but a few, including the family of Rosa Sorak, have decided to remain.
It was a decision Rosa and her husband would come to regret, not least because they would lose two sons, one in a car accident and one at the hands of the Bosnian (Muslim) police, who took the son and presumably killed him. This second son left behind a pregnant wife. When several months later she gave birth—in the midst of continued Bosnian Serb shelling, increasing harassment from Muslim neighbors, and a food shortage—another tragedy threatened the family, for the new mother was unable to nurse. “Infants, like the infirm and the elderly, were dying in droves,” Hedges writes. After five days of tea, the baby “began to fade.”
Enter Fadil Fejzić, an illiterate Muslim neighbor who milked his cow at night to avoid being killed by Serbian snipers.
Rosa told Hedges: “On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzić in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Goražde for Serbia.”
Rosa went on to tell Hedges that while she could never forgive her son’s Muslim murderers, neither could she be silent when her fellow Serbs spoke only disparagingly of Muslims. She and her family were the recipients of one Muslim's courageous act of love, and her granddaughter was alive because of it. This story needed telling too.
After Rosa's story concludes, Hedges locates Fejzić, who is living a hard life even after the war. Hedges concludes with a reflection of his own:
The small acts of decency by people such as [Fejzić] ripple outwards like concentric circles. These acts, unrecognized at the time, make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people. They serve as reminders that we all have a will of our own, a will that is independent of the state or the nationalist cause. Most important, once the war is over, these people make it hard to brand an entire nation or an entire people as guilty.
For a short New York Times editorial about Bosnia today, click on "Bosnia Unraveling" (Feb 22, 2009)
Ba Chuc, a Vietnamese community in the Mekong Delta, sits just across the border from Cambodia.In April 1978, Khmer Rouge soldiers entered the village and massacred 3,157 men, women, and children—almost the entire population.Today the skulls of the victims are on display in this outdoor memorial.
Statistics, when referring to numbers of dead, fall flat in their attempts to convey the humanity of what has been lost.This is because emotions are connected to people, not numbers.Try, for example, to process this excerpt from Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002):
Look just at the 1990s: 2 million dead in Afghanistan; 1.5 million dead in the Sudan; some 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda; a half-million dead in Angola; a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia; 200,000 dead in Guatemala; 150,000 dead in Liberia; a quarter of a million dead in Burundi; 75,000 dead in Algeria; and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea,....
In Ba Chuc, I spent a good amount of time before these skulls, imagining the life that had once animated the now hollow bones. I heard the laughter, the conversations, the sneezes, the crying...and then the sudden ending of it all. The victims in this photo were almost all females in their late teens—girls in the process of becoming women—and more than a few of them died only after being horrifically raped (an adjacent room offered the most nauseating pictures of sexual violence I had ever seen).And in looking into these skulls, I felt neither the sterility of statistics nor a mere twinge of sadness; I felt a palpable, riveting absence.