I am not in a war zone. I have shelter and food and a safe environment. No one is shooting at me or taking away my home or attacking or destroying it. I am not forced to flee for my life or live in squalor in a refugee camp. But women elsewhere are experiencing those things every day. Those women are facing situations and odds that would bring me to my knees were I in their place.
This week I lost sight of what matters. I had to paint a closet where black mold had developed all over the walls from a roof leak in this old Victorian house where I live. The owner, who lives elsewhere, did not want to add a new roof and also did not want to hire someone to fix my closet. I could not make her do the repairs, of course. So I got help from the hardware shop in my town. Those there who helped me during three visits to purchase what I needed were thorough in their information and showed compassion for the stress I obviously couldn’t hide at the idea of having to neutralize the black mold, apply primer, and finally paint over everything. Not being a DIY sort of person I had a hard time gearing up to do each step. The whole process took several days and I fretted the whole time, often feeling angry. But now I am looking at a clean, white closet with gratitude and relief that I got the job done, against all my feelings of resistance.
But what does painting this closet have to do with women in war zones?
This. Before I went to apply the last coat of paint, pushing myself to do it, still upset, so very absorbed in the feeling that I was hard done by, that I did not want to do this DIY thing, resenting the fact I had to leave my writing and books and coffee shops for hours every day till the fix was done at last, I opened an article online at NPR titled The Remarkable Photos Of Lynsey Addario, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer.
She had taken extraordinary photos, powerful pictures of women in war zones. I scrolled through them, struck by how Addario chose each scene and gave it such impact. I was mesmerized. Then I scrolled down to Addario’s photograph of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan woman who was disfigured by the Taliban. This quote is from the article:
“It was such a shame on her family that she had left the house without her husband’s permission, even though she had left to seek shelter. He took her up to the mountains, and he was surrounded by a group of his fellow Taliban. They pinned her down and [her husband] sliced her nose off her face as punishment for shaming him. It’s an extraordinary photograph because she looks so calm and yet you feel this extraordinary violence perpetrated against her.”
As soon as I saw her, something changed for me. No way could I just look at that photograph and move on. It was impossible not to feel both rage and tears of despair — but there was also something else, something Bibi Aisha showed as she looked at the camera. She had survived a horror beyond my ability to comprehend. How? How had she been able to live on after that? I wanted to know. And in her eyes I saw it. She would not give in to the fear, nor to the violence perpetrated against her. She was far, far more than those things — and the men who committed the violent act suddenly became far less.
I was filled with awe, by her photograph and by all the others in the article. I felt I had always known that women have the incredible ability to thrive despite the worst of circumstances, but I hadn’t really known it. The idea had been an abstract one for me. Because of these photographs by Addario, because of the way she took them, the first and foremost thing that was visible was the humanity of the women, even while all of them were living in war zones. Their inner power came out of the photographs in a piercing reality, unforgettable — and life-giving.
After reading that article and seeing Addario’s images, I felt a shift into another way of seeing, something more profound than I had perceived before.
It isn’t that the everyday tasks like fixing the condition of a closet do not matter —of course they do. But such things do not require or deserve our emotional energy, and if we lose perspective for any length of time, if we indulge in anger or resentment, those are hours we can never reclaim.
We are meant to use our emotional energy instead to offer help and compassion in the context of a larger, global recognition of why we are here together. We are meant to counter the negative forces that created the war zones in the first place. And we are meant to emulate the courage of the women in those images who are doing mundane tasks in an apocalyptic environment with a courage we can only guess at.
The world revealed by these women in Addario’s photographs is in such great need of our attention and compassion, and it is calling us to action.