It’s one thing to learn about one another. All of us have had experiences of learning from another. Can we aspire to learn with one another?
And how do we learn if we keep in mind, and heart, the presence of people whose lives are affected by what we are discussing? How would it change our words, and the compassion that shines through those words, when we speak with presence — the presence of our own hearts, the presence of fellow human beings?
This lesson is one that has lingered with me since the experience a few years ago.
I had just finished teaching a course that dealt with many of the “tough” issues around Islam: women’s rights, the Iraq war, Taliban, Saudis, Palestine/Israel, 9/11, and so on. As is my tendency, I tried to teach the class in a way that would affirm the dignity and sanctity of all human life.
The hardest unit to teach was the 9/11 segment. Not because it involved the largest loss of human life. No, other disasters such as the Iraq war involved a far greater loss of human life at the numbers level. But the school I taught in at that time was in New York, and many of my students had a firsthand connection to 9/11. I still remember the days of 9/11, and seeing teary-eyed and otherwise sweet students crying in the memorial service saying, “I just wanna go nuke somebody.”
I tried to teach the class so that we would begin with a radical premise, one that said the life of every Palestinian would carry the exact same dignity as the life of every Israeli and the life of every Israeli would carry the exact same dignity as the life of every Palestinian, the life of every Iraqi and Afghan the same worth as the life of every American. In teaching about 9/11, that meant, yes, teaching about Wahhabism and Osama bin Laden, teaching about al-Qaeda’s history of terrorism. But, it also meant teaching about the history of U.S. support for Saudis; for the Mujahideen (a significant portion of whom would morph into the Taliban); for dictatorial regimes, Guantanamo, drones, and the vastly greater loss of life on the Iraqi and Afghan side.
Teaching about 9/11 and its aftermath — and I do insist on seeing these connected together — was emotional for all of us in the class. It was a challenging one to teach, to keep our hearts open to the suffering that has been in so many ways the framing issue of our lifetime. It was a daily challenge to give voice to the righteous indignation that is also called for in confronting the loss of human life in Iraq after the U.S. attack there.
After the unit was over, on the last day of class, one of the students named Amy Mastrocinque came up to me. She thanked me for the class and said softly, quietly, “My father was in the towers.”
I kept repeating the words to myself softly, over and over again. My mind was racing, but the meaning wasn’t quite coming:
My father. Was. Towers.
My father. Was. Towers.
As I kept looking into the eyes of this shy and quiet student, the horror of the “was” unveiled itself to me.
Her father had died in the World Trade Center. No. That didn’t quite capture it. Her father had been killed in the World Trade Center. Here, in front of me, was her father’s daughter — a girl who had listened to me for 14 weeks, 40 hours, talk about all these heart-wrenching issues.
She went on to say that the reason she had signed up for the class is because she had tried to understand. She wanted to understand what would have made someone hate so much to take other human life. She thanked me for the class, and for all she had learned in it.
As I stared into her eyes, my mind began racing through 40 hours of lectures. I wondered if at any point during the semester, in my attempt to convey the full humanity of the Iraqi, Palestinian, Pakistani, and Afghani civilians, I had spoken too lightly about the full humanity of the Americans who had perished on 9/11. I wondered if in arguing that the lives of fellow human beings around the planet have exactly the same innate worth as the privileged lives of Americans, if I had done so with sarcasm, with pain, with anger rather than with compassion and kindness. I wondered if righteous indignation could sometimes have trampled over compassion.
While these thoughts were racing inside my head, I just blurted out to Amy, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She went on to explain that she had taken the class to learn, and she hadn’t wanted me to censor myself in any way. So she wanted to absorb the full blow of a professor who was becoming, even in those early days, somewhat known for his outspoken and challenging political views, though with a radical commitment to love and justice.
Amy’s eyes, Amy’s words, and Amy’s intention have stayed with me over the years. When I speak on Palestine/Israel, I imagine the Jewish granddaughters of Holocaust survivors in the audience, and I imagine the Palestinians whose grandparents were driven out of their ancestral Palestinian homeland in the audience. When I speak about what I see as an unjust and immoral war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I imagine the soldier’s spouse whose loved one is on his or her fifth tour of duty, and I imagine the one whose loved ones have been killed by an American drone.
How should we speak about complicated moral and political messes — which is all of them — with the awareness of the presence of human beings whose lives have been transformed for both better and worse in the room with us?
We live in an age of bluster.
We have presidential candidates being praised for “speaking their mind” instead of inquiring about what is on their mind and how much wisdom and compassion is in their heart. How do we preserve sanity, compassion, humility, and empathy in this rather loud age?
How do I keep learning from Amy, her father’s daughter? How do I keep learning with Amy?
I recently got back in touch with Amy. She has gone on to become a teacher, and shares the lessons of that class with her own students. On the anniversary of 9/11, she put up a note on her Facebook page acknowledging her father, but also the class that she took to make sense of our mad world. She credits that experience as “eradicating” the hatred in her own heart, removing her own fear. It, she said, brought her a “peace of mind” and “positive view on religion and the world.”
On 9/11, she posted a picture of herself and her father. It shows Rudy Mastrocinque as a young father — handsome and confident — with a very young Amy sitting on her father’s lap. He’s staring off into the distance. She’s staring into the camera.
We do not speak about “others.”
They are us.
We are together.
And we stare into each other’s souls.
How do we learn with each other?
How do we live, breathe, love with each other?