“Who are all these people ?” (Robert C. Koehler)
“The children of our empires are now coming ‘home’ to Europe ”. (Bert Hellinger)
“Don’t just talk about it. Do something”. (His Holiness, The Dalai Lama)
“Once in awhile, an image breaks through the noisy, cluttered global culture and hits people in the heart and not the head”. (Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History, Rice University)
Over the years, during my many visits to the Louvre Museum in Paris I have paused to marvel at Theodore Gericault’s monumental (5mx7m) and terrifying masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819). As an art historian, I saw this painting as an icon of French Romanticism, depicting the aftermath of the wreck of a poorly navigated French naval frigate, Medusa, which ran aground off the west coast of Africa on July 2, 1816.
An international scandal erupted as soon as the public became aware that as the vessel foundered, the fortunate were off-loaded into lifeboats and at least 147 of those considered to be less worthy were cast adrift upon a hastily constructed, barely seaworthy, makeshift raft.
Empathetic outrage ensued, as it became known that all but 15 of those unfortunates, literally cast off because they existed at the lower echelons of society, died from exposure, were killed or threw themselves into the sea from despair, during the 13 agonizing days before their chance rescue by the Argus. The French government had made no specific effort to rescue the raft. Gericault chose to depict the moment when the remaining survivors spotted the approaching ship in the far distance. By this time, these wretched survivors had endured starvation, dehydration and cannibalism; as deep and terrible waves relentlessly buffeted their partially submerged raft. Societal uproar escalated as the tragedy was determined to have been caused, at least in part, by the blatantly political appointment of an incompetent aristocratic captain who had barely sailed in 20 years.
In the foreground of the painting, a despondent father holds the body of his dead son, and to add to the drama of this tragedy, Gericault foreshortened the scene in such a way that the pallid, prostrate, crazed tangle of dead and dying bodies, appear as if the ocean is about to upend the doomed raft in our direction so that this horrifying mess will shortly be ours, as well.
Now, as a social traumatologist, I view this iconic painting from a new perspective. Here in 2015, I understand Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa as not only a masterful and groundbreaking depiction of a historical tragedy with profound political implications, but also as a nearly timeless depiction of the shipwrecked everywhere.(Michael Glover, independent.co.uk, February 4, 2011). The image of this Gericault masterpiece also came to mind in the human tragedy and political scandal surrounding “The Raft of Lamedusa”, along with a reminder of the power of such images to impact and shift public opinion. Last October’s tragedy off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lamedusa briefly hit the headlines as some 360 men, women and children drowned in the Mediterranean during a failed night crossing. While this incident drew international attention to the failure of the EU’s migration policy, there was not much impetus for change. (http://pes.cor.europa.eu, February 4,2014)
Then on September 2nd, 2015, the photo of a lifeless three year old boy named Aylan Kurdi went viral, igniting a global outpouring of outrage and sorrow. This photograph taken by Nilufer Demir shows little Aylan in his long shorts and red tee shirt, hiked above the waist, exposing his midriff, still wearing his black sneakers, without socks, lying face down in the rocky sand. Soon thereafter Nilufer spotted his five year older brother Galip, lying close by. Words are only that which reach one part of our brains, and this was exactly the image that was needed to break through the collective silence. During the past several years of warfare and flight, more than 200,000 Syrians have died with many having suffered horrible deaths in bombings and chemical weapon attacks, while attempting to flee their homeland …their bodies have been found in trucks, in the snow, and now along the beaches. At present, the number of displaced Syrians has mounted to more than 11 million. (Anne Barnard, Karam Shoumali, NY Times, September 3, 2015).
For an exorbitant fee, smugglers had promised Aylan’s father Abdullah Kurdi a motorboat trip from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos; and had instead provided only a 15 foot rubber raft for the group of twenty three desperate migrants. This raft tipped over in the high waves tossing out into the sea12 people who drowned along with Mr. Kurdi, his wife and two sons ….from the Kurdi family only Abdullah only survived. (Justin Wm Moger, Washingtonpost.com, September 3, 2015).
So what can done? No more silence, willful ignorance,lies and media spin. We’ve had enough of that, and this massive human tragedy is not going to go away. Conflicts that bring chaos, now spreading across the planet, continue to defy any easy solution; and yet a strong international, grassroots, humanitarian response, might succeed where military interventions, “clandestine aid to rebels “, no–fly zones and “non-intervention policies” have failed. Truth is, that in our increasingly inter-connected world, nothing is very far away. Never before has John Donne’s meditation “ No Man is an Island “ rung more true… “… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Therefore, do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee”.
Compassion is needed and this can provide strong medicine for confronting social issues as well as cultivating and promoting an attitude that all others matter. While universal compassion sets a high standard, beyond the reach of most of us, we can nevertheless move in that direction by expanding our circle of caring. The challenge here is being able to overcome the, at least partially biologically determined and culturally conditioned, “tribal consciousness” which dictates loyalty only to “our own”… gender, family, race, tribe, class, political party,flag, religious affiliation and so on.
Dr. med. Karl-Heinz Rauscher offers a practical way, through which we can transcend our tribal limitations and aspire to a more universal and inclusive heart– based consciousness. He reminds us that, as humans we are a unit, a large family, and with this basic attitude toward life we have a chance to solve the current refugee problem and also other major human questions confronting us today; by placing ourselves within the “circle of all.”
To be willing to place ourselves within the “circle of all” is to be willing to give up every devaluation and look at refugees as brothers and sisters…and from this inner attitude alone, our necessary actions will naturally follow. Our lives can become much richer through others, and within the “circle of all” everyone gives what they have, (talents, ideas, money) to the center of the circle for the benefit of all and in this way, everyone will be enriched. Dr. Rauscher’s recommended exercise is as follows :
Take whatever time you need and ask yourself: “Where in the world do I still consider another human being to be a stranger, as someone who does not belong to us?” If you find someone, take him or her into your “circle of all”; and by doing so, you are entering into the circle yourself by giving up devaluation and exclusion. Now, stay within this consciousness throughout your day and observe what is happening within you. Consider yourself a citizen of mankind. (http://www.dr-rauscher.de).