I was visiting the beautiful city of Paris for the first time when the recent attacks occurred. I was awoken in the middle of the night by texts from my family and friends asking me if I was okay. I woke to “there have been several terrorist attacks in Paris.” Terrifying since I was sleeping in Paris at the time. Scarier still when we saw how close we were to the attacks. My instinct was to stay inside our flat until my plane left three days later. But I took my cue from the amazing and resilient French who said to us, “We must go on.” We rode the metro the next day and went to lunch with our French friends. I was surprised how many people were out and how many places were open. We had a wonderful afternoon, though by evening I was nervous enough to want to go home.
One evening two days later, after a day of shopping, my friend Claire and I stopped in at a lovely Parisian bar for a drink.
That was the first time in my life that I actually believed I was about to die.
Claire and I were chatting with a lovely bartender we had met earlier in the week. There was a small group of people sitting near us sharing a huge drink with three straws. There were lots of people sitting at the outdoor café as well. After a couple minutes at the bar, though, something happened. It happened so fast, and yet had the sense of being in slow motion. We heard screaming and looked up to see the outdoor customers like a wave of people flying over chairs and tables into the room. Claire and I found ourselves on the floor in the corner looking for cover along with a restaurant full of people who believed at that moment they were being attacked.
I cannot adequately explain what that feels like. Looking back though, I am surprised by my reaction to it. My life did not flash before my eyes and I’m sorry to say I did not think about my children. My thoughts were mainly “can I cover Claire so she will be safe?” At the same time, she was trying to pull me down. She said later, “I was trying to cover your head.” Meanwhile there were others around us also trying to protect us, moving chairs and covering us so we would be shielded. When things settled down, the man next to me said, “Stay here and I will go see if it’s safe.” He was a big man; I remember the feeling of his hand as he pulled me to my feet; how safe he made me feel. As we left the café, people were checking on each other; they were cleaning up, righting the chairs. Everyone was helping.
In the midst of believing our lives were in grave danger, everyone tried to protect everyone else.
I heard that on the night of the attacks the French near the attack sites invited strangers into their homes – people who were out and could not make it to their own places. Strangers. Into their homes.
Some things changed for me those few days in Paris. Before the attacks, I had been pretty focused on myself. I have recently had personal experiences that are troubling and challenging. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them. I had been focused inward. And I don’t mean to discount this – I believe it is important to personal growth that we examine ourselves. But after being just miles away from people so senselessly losing their lives; after believing that I might actually lose my own life, things shifted for me. It wasn’t a conscious “I should value life more” shift. Rather I started to realize how much I care about the welfare of the people around me – people I know and people I don’t know; all of them. I want to make sure they are okay. My focus shifted outward.
Similarly, I began to have a real experience of being cared for. I felt a connection with other people. I started to realize that if I am in trouble, people will take care of me. Not just my friends. Not just my family. Not just people in my hometown or people in this restaurant, or the people of Paris, but everyone. Ironically in a time of great and senseless violence, my experience was one of being profoundly cared for and protected.
I’m still concerned about my own problems. Don’t get me wrong — this did not magically change that. But what I saw in Paris is the goodness of humanity. Not just the goodness, but the connection and the intense desire to protect one another. I looked back over my life and I started to see it. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before. I sat in a crowded theatre once and a strange man sat down several seats away. He turned and physically attacked a stranger sitting next to him. Within moments, five people had jumped up out of their seats to help the man who was under attack.
I was in a car accident once and remember lying on the ground with snowflakes floating down. I looked up into the faces of four people who had stopped to help me. Two of them went all the way to the hospital with me. Just to make sure I was okay. Strangers.
I got hurt recently in a parking lot – it was minor and I was being helped, but still a man stopped to make sure I was okay.
I was out with friends a couple weeks ago and I said that I was cold. A man in our group who I barely know, gave me his jacket.
There are so many ways that people show their caring – large and small. What does it take for us to look up and see it? For me it took the fear of losing my life.
Thanksgiving is my favorite time of year. I love the Fall weather in Sacramento and I love a holiday that revolves around gratitude. Every year, I focus on all the things I have and love and feel grateful for. And so now more than ever I am saying, “thank you.”
Thank you, Claire, for trying to keep my head down.
Thank you, dear man, for venturing out to make sure all was okay before helping me up.
Thank you, kind people who opened your homes when you did not have to.
Thank you, whatever power it is that allowed me to live a little longer.
Thank you, people of Paris, for being brave and real and a genuine inspiration.
And thank you for making the world a better place. Because you really do. With all your small acts of kindness. Not just in crisis, but every day. Thank you for hugging your kids and making them believe in goodness; thank you for loving other people’s children; for letting others go in front of you in traffic; for smiling at me when I pass you; for reaching out when you see someone is struggling; for small and miniscule-seeming acts of love and connection. Thank you. There are no acts that are too small and you do them every day. I can see you. I wonder if you know the good you are doing in the world. You are. So thank you.
I do not pray very often. But this is my prayer. It is a prayer of thanksgiving.
It is a prayer that we see our common humanity; that we remember how much we care for others; that we see how much they care for us.
It is a prayer that you will see, as I have seen, the love around you; and feel, as I have felt, held and protected and safe…even now. Especially now.
It is a prayer that we will continue to make sure the people around us are okay.
And it is a prayer for peace.