- Notes on Bewilderment
I have just received news that, back in the U.S., my brother’s first child has been safely born.
The day before, two American soldiers on the train from Amsterdam to Paris disarmed a gunman ready to wreak havoc. Earlier this year two brothers broke into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris with rifles and killed 12 people; two days later, a connected gunman murdered four Jewish shoppers in a Parisian kosher supermarket.
It is the autumn of 2015, and my wife and I have recently moved to the little city of Maastricht in the southern Netherlands. Seated at my desk and looking out the windows of our apartment, I watch the clouds settle even more heavily onto the morning. By sudden degrees the room becomes so dark I can hardly see. Only an hour before, there was sun warming the kitchen, but now it seems almost night.
We are in a moment when such acts of violence still feel “new,” before the continued upward spiral that is to come. In only another month or two, the coordinated shootings in the Bataclan theater and several other locations in Paris will happen, killing 130 people. A few months after that, Zaventem airport and a subway in Belgium will be bombed, killing at least 34 people and injuring more than 190.
Many analysts believe an underlying factor contributing to these acts of violence is the way a number of European countries—particularly France and Belgium—have ghettoized and isolated immigrants, whom they invited into the country in the first place because they needed their labor.
The sun comes back out, but behind it the sky still growls, glowers, the [End Page 33] foliage lit up in glowing green and yellow. I take my dog for a walk in the nearby park; on one of the leaf-littered paths, a woman passes us, and as though I am asleep, I watch my dog lunge at hers, growling. He becomes, in an instant, all muscle and snarling tooth, a beast responding to some signal we humans could not see or perceive, and later I find myself wondering if some of the shock and horror at these recent large-scale acts of violence is rooted in a lie: that we humans are not as violent as beasts, that our civilized veneer is strong enough to tame us.
In this moment, though, standing in the misty park with a layer of damp, rotting leaves underfoot, I don’t know why everything seems so slow, why I couldn’t respond faster, and when the woman says “ooh” in a tssk-ing voice and walks away, a red haze of shame rises in my stomach.
Living in a country that is new to me, the tinge of isolation is always present. I take walks in the misty rain past endless Dutch brownstones, two-story brick the same over and over, a familiar life and yet one I feel unsure how to access, interact with. Every time I succeed in hiding behind “Goede morgen,” I feel momentarily safe, unseen in my disguise. I am easily flummoxed, and that begins to feel like it means something about me. About my outsiderness, about my worth. I imagine over and over how much harder this would be if I were not English-speaking, U.S.-born, educated, white. If I did not come here out of choice, or with an income. If I carried with me the trauma of living in a war zone. If the world had not told me over and over again that my life matters, that I am valuable.
Making dinner one evening, I turn on the radio as I move around the kitchen in the falling dark, my bare feet padding on the floor. They are playing an interview with a well-known author who says that he writes, always, to ask the question Who am I? Perhaps in effect we are saying the same thing, but I find the question that drives me is less Who am I? than the sometimes almost-despairing How shall I live? What choices do I make in a world of...