The Answer is Extremism
For ten days at a time, we didn’t see a speck of land. Nothing but the flat blue below and clouds of white above. The texture of both changed with the winds, the seas piling up, foaming and angry, launching us swiftly down their faces, then falling flat in moments of eerie calm, the clouds gathering with rain, before it all started over again.
It is a life of extreme calm in many ways. Downwind sailing, the current behind us, logging two hundred nautical miles a day. We read, cook, eat, watch films, sleep, hang laundry on the lifelines, talk, play cards, exercise, and the hours pile into days and the days into weeks.
Twenty-seven days of sailing to cross from Cape Town to Barbados. It’s not just the width of the Atlantic but the vast majority of its height as well. One fifth of my journey around the globe was gobbled down in a mere month. Along the way, my boat was attacked by a shark that had to be around fifteen feet long. Its teeth marks stretch out on either side of my port bow. Two teeth were left behind in the fiberglass. It all happened without us aware, violence out of sight, the calm sea and soothing clouds all that we were aware of.
World events transpired in much the same way, with us at sea, cut off and unaware. Mass shootings in the United States. Terrorist attacks in France. And then more terrorism in the US. Talks of closing borders to Muslims. A run on gun stores. Angry debates, fear, hate, xenophobia, the sort of global tension and move toward populism, nationalism, and conservatism last seen following the first world war.
Muslim American women are now privately advising one another on whether it’s okay to take off their hijabs to avoid recrimination. They are more afraid to be seen in public than the days after 9/11. Many say that Islam is waging war on the rest of the world. The religion is seen as a menace. Something foreign, strange, dangerous, to be eradicated. And perhaps there is truth to this. Maybe the answer is more extremism. I truly believe this may be the case.
I was raised Christian. I was raised with guns. I believed in both. I no longer do. Instead, I believe in a different sort of extremism, one that is far crazier than most are willing to embrace. I believe in extreme pacifism. Extreme forgiveness. I believe if an enemy strikes you, you should turn the cheek and let them hit you again. Better to let them tire their limbs than stoop to their level. Any guesses where I learned this bit of radicalism?
When I speak out about this on Facebook, fans of my novel Wool wonder how I could write about the world ending and still be against guns. They miss the point of the book they love. The most highlighted line in the novel is one that bemoans the ease with which a pipe can be waved at another and end their life. They miss that the threat to humanity wasn’t governments but deadly tools in the hands of the general population. The next generation of privately owned arms is what brings humanity to the brink. Government action, perhaps, is all that saves us. And Juliette’s lesson in Wool is that revolution is not the answer; it only leads to extinction.
Such has been my transformation. I laid down my religion decades ago, my guns more recently. Both are instruments with multiple uses, but both have a long and ugly history. Both can too easily be used for violence. Christians point to the violent history of Islam while seemingly unaware of the far worse violence committed in Jesus’ name. The crusades and Inquisitions were horrific, and they happened not too long ago. In fact, the timeline of violence closely matches the ages of the two religions. Islam started later. It’s juvenile years today are very similar to what Christianity went through just a few hundred years ago. The similarities don’t end there.
Every person who fears that Muslims crave the extermination of heretics should ask themselves this: Have they ever said or wished for the Middle East to be “turned to glass?” This phrase has been uttered so often that it has become the Christian equivalent of jihad. How is it any different than what ISIS claims to strive for? I will admit that I have used this phrase, said it and truly meant it, before I laid down my religion and my guns. I thought the world would be better off if the Middle East was nuked. I now reject this thinking. I see it as equivalent and just as morally repugnant as any Muslim who wishes the extermination of all heretics. Here are two groups wish to see the other go extinct. Both are revolting. But it is not the other person we should be revolted by and wish to change. It is us. The only minds we can alter with certainty are own own minds. Any chance of altering the minds of others is greatly diminished with hatred and violence. The answer is to turn the cheek. And keep turning it.
Many will immediately reject this suggestion, calling it naive to follow the advice of the man they claim to worship on Sundays. But I don’t think it’s naive at all. Three days ago, I was mugged here on the island of St. Martin. Two men assaulted me and made off with my wallet. Today is the first day I’ve gotten my limp under control. My jaw only now feels normal. The abrasions have turned to scabs and don’t sting as much. And while chasing one of the thieves around the equivalent of a large city block, I pleaded with him. Take the cash. Leave me the cards. They won’t be good to you anyway. Stop. Talk to me. It’s okay, man. I don’t want to hurt you. You can have the money. It’s okay.
Of course, he didn’t stop. Both men made off on a scooter. And I forgave them immediately.
For the last three days, I have felt a heightened sense of love for this island and its people. I have poured that love out, and that love has been returned with interest. The following day, I’m walking around the shipyard with a massive plate of watermelon, urging everyone to have seconds and thirds. The day after, with no cash for the paint supplies I need, those workers are scrounging for them out of their own stash. Three young men in a paint store let me use a credit card number without the card in my possession, a violation of store policy. On the streets, I chat with young men who are likely just as desperate for cash and just as prone to making regrettable decisions as those thieves. The same sorts of mistakes I made when I was their age. We bond. We laugh together. We climb and jump off cliffs together. There is nothing anyone on this island can do to me worse than what I can do to myself: Only I can fill myself with hate. Only I can devolve into a state of wishing the death of others. The worst they can do is kill me. My principles are mine, to do with as I please. Is that too extreme?
My boat is currently hauled out of the water so the shark attack can be repaired. The hotel I’m staying in is allowing me to stay an extra night, shuffling some reservations to make it happen. I straggled back here the other night missing a flip-flop, bruised and battered, with no wallet, my head ringing, and the lobby staff was amazing. I found out today that they aren’t billing me for the extra night. The cost of the night’s stay? It’s almost identical to the amount of cash I lost to the two young men. The cards will be replaced. The net loss has been nil. The gain has been an outpouring of love, sympathy, and empathy from the island of St. Martin, my friends, and my family.
There will be more terrorist attacks. There will be more mass shootings. And I will be mugged again. This was the third time in my life. All three times, my naivete played a role in getting beat up and robbed. One day, this naivete may get me killed. But it will have been worth it, to live the life I choose. A life where doors aren’t locked as frequently as perhaps they should. A life where the best is expected of others. A life of getting knocked down and simply getting up again. Because just about every time, more good than ill comes from these circumstances. So long as I cling to this radicalism, this extremism, that I learned about as a youth on Sundays.