Out of Smoke and Silence

Last night the smoke in Delhi was thick. The acrid smell climbed in to all the crevices and cracks in doors and window frames and asserted itself with caustic breath. The air quality index nearby at RK Puram rated the particulate matter in the air as 534, which is rated as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. AQI greater than 300, according to the Air Now air quality guide, “would trigger a health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.” We have three large air purifiers in our apartment, but last night breathing was still painful. The lungs ached.

Several years back, the World Health Organization stated that air pollution is the greatest threat to health, and in Delhi in particular. (See more here.) It’s worse on the roadsides, according to Time, in an article “New Delhi, the World’s Most Polluted City is Even More Polluted Than We Realized” writer Rishi Iyengar explains that “average pollution levels were up to eight times higher on city roads, the Associated Press reports.” With the number of diesel cars on the road, old cars, and the growing number of cars on the road, things are bad, and they are especially bad in winter when people burn whatever they can find in open fires in order to stay warm. The suffering continues. The problem continues.

Suffering, however, is a world wide phenomena, and comes in so many forms. Only a few weeks ago, you may recall, Boko Haram in Nigeria opened attack on villagers, burned people in their houses and left what CNN says was nearly 2,000 people dead. 30,000 people were displaced. This kind of suffering doesn’t end by people moving to a new location.

Coming to terms with the horror of such experiences make indelible marks on people’s lives that continues on for decades. You may recall genocide in other locations and eras as well. Between April and June of 1994, for example, the BBC  says, somewhere around 800,000 Rwandans were killed within the span of 100 days. That is a statistic that holds underneath it a grief too staggering to comprehend. Last week by accident, I came across the Isaha iteragera Misingi choir, from Kigali Rwandan choir on the Net. (Take a listen.) Since a friend of ours had lived there for several years, I wanted to hear them. Though I didn’t know the meaning of the words the choir sings, a spirit of joy and love comes through their bodies’ expression and their faces. It’s palpable, and I it made me wonder what it is that allows people who have known such deep suffering to express the sense of joy and open heartedness in their music.

We might be going along thinking we’re managing things okay from day to day. We may be able to do this for years, but then something happens that makes us realize we are standing on different ground: a loved one suddenly dies, becomes ill, has an operation or an accident. We lose our job, our house. What then? How do we manage? How might the way the Rwandans are dealing with their suffering suggest how others might deal with their suffering? What strikes me as particularly interesting is that in Rwanda, healing is taking place as a community and through community effort. As Henri Nouwen points out, “Suffering invites us to place our hurts in larger hands.” We go to the community for help and a growing number of Rwandans today are coming together to deal with the problems of the deep wound left behind from the catastrophic experience by using “community based sociotherapy.”

“The effectiveness of the sociotherapy in Byumba relies on the following principles which are considered as the backbone of the approach: Interest in people, Equality, Democracy, Here and Now, Responsibility, Participation, and Learning by Doing,” says Jean de Dieu Basabose in his article, “Community Based Sociotherapy” on the Insight on Conflict website connected with Peace Direct. Victims and offenders alike meet face to face, recognizing that they are in need of support and restoration. In learning to forgive, people are released from their suffering. (See the movie trailer, As We Forgive about this.) To add to this story, however, something worth noting is that in Rwanda, the offenders are also rebuilding the country. In recognizing the wrongs they committed, offenders work to take an active part in their communities in setting things right. Words and action together are making the change.

There are some principles here that are useful. We aren’t alone when we suffer. We rely on the resources within the community to move toward the needed changes. We work to build community and mutual respect for each other within the community. We nurture our spirits and skills so we can give to our communities what is needed. We do what we can in the sphere we are part of to helps create community.

Will that effort be enough? Will it end the air pollution problem within my life time? Will it end genocide? That depends on what we do with what we’re given. If we build community, we will have the support of those around us to carry us through the difficulties, and that is no mean comfort. In the midst of our suffering, it is good to know, as William Stafford says in his poem, “Assurance”

You will never be alone, you hear so deep
a sound when autumn comes. Yellow
pulls across the hills and thrums,
or the silence after lightening before it says
its names- and then the clouds’ wide-mouthed


In the silence and the smoke, the loss, we can speak together for a better, more humane world. Though we will always be incomplete and fall short. We are human. But together we can hold each other up and become more than we are.

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