Whenever something horrible happens like the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday, I ask myself, there must be something to set against all this.
This is a line from my favorite movie, Charlotte Gray. The protagonist, a British spy in Vichy France, says, as one of her Jewish benefactors is carted away, “there must be something to set against all this.” In a hurry she decides to type a letter and makes it appear to be from the already deported parents of the two children who are being carted away with him, and she pushes it through the door slits of the moving freight train. This letter is the little something, a fabricated morsel of joy for those children, that she manages to set against the horror they find themselves in.
So what can I, right now, set against the horror of what happened in Paris on Friday? I have several elaborate political opinions about what is happening on a geopolitical scale and what might be done about it, but first and foremost, since I am not a world leader or “influencer,” what can I, little me, “set against all this?”
Massacres like this are stark and urgent reminders that my answer in the face of sudden death, calamity and violence is this: Live the best life I can. Make the best of this very moment I have, living in safety. And even if not in safety, there is almost always a little something we can do. This is the main lesson of Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, but it was also my very personal conclusion after I lost my father to a sudden heart attack when I was 21. Life can be over just like that. And even if it’s not over, it can change in an instant. None of us has control over that and therefore, while we are alive, we must make the best of the life we have. Live with the most joy and the greatest kindness and also the greatest purpose. We must strive to leave something better behind, must work to make an impact, so that, when our hour comes, and we have a second to look back, we can say, “I lived my best life.”
Of course it is not easy to accomplish this in the mundanness of everyday life, but that is exactly our challenge, and so we can use every reminder that comes our way to step up to the plate. We must set beauty and joy against darkness and terror, which is why I immediately contacted my friends in Paris (thank God they are safe), and why I chose a picture of the glorious Eiffel Tour (taken from the window of the apartment we rented on our most recent trip to Paris) as the title image of this post rather than the dark ribbon Google associates with it.