Like millions of others around the world, I was horrified and sickened by the murder of twelve people in an attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo a couple of weeks back. I was equally heartened by the outpouring of solidarity and humanity which followed in its wake, as cries of "Je Suis Charlie" filled the streets of Paris, the magazines and newspapers of the world, and the jacket lapel of George Clooney.
I then took a look through the archives of Charlie Hebdo and realized that I didn't really like what they had to say. Their particular way of "poking fun" at the world's religions had too much poking and not enough fun for my personal view of the world. But it is in recognizing that a worldview is just that -- a view of the world not necessarily shared by all good, loving, and right minded people -- that I believe the ultimate hope for humanity lives.
There is a deeper level of truth at which the simple fact of being human connects us even as our beliefs and points of view seem to divide us.I first woke up to this fact when l ate into the evening on one of the last days in August, 1997, my eldest daughter was born in a small hospital in the center of London. Twenty four hours later, there was a car crash in Paris which claimed the lives of Dodi Al-Fayed, Henri Paul, and Diana Spencer. When I came back into the hospital early the next morning, my wife told me that a nurse had come in to her room in the middle of the night crying and saying "wake up -- the princess is dead!"
While that night is burned in my memory for other reasons, I will always remember watching Diana's funeral on television a week later and then taking our new baby out in her stroller for some fresh air. The streets were filled with people streaming out of their homes having just watched the funeral for themselves. There was a bond between all of us that day I had never felt before outside of a football stadium or pep rally -- a sense of our common humanity, regardless of the points of view towards monarchy or political sensibilities we had developed along the way. Neighbors we had lived beside for years but never spoken to joined us on our walk and the streets were literally packed with people wanting nothing more than to feel that they were not alone.
I have felt that same connection several times since. After the planes crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001, all of Los Angeles seemed to forgive one another for pretty much anything so quickly that drivers on the freeways actually waved at me and encouraged me to go ahead of them, something I have never experienced before or since.
Sitting in an international departures lounge on election night in 2008, there was a cheer that went up throughout the airport which alerted us to the news that Barack Hussein Obama had just been declared President of the United States. As stranger turned to stranger to share the story, one excited Eastern European man came up to me to shake my hand and say "Today, we are all Americans!"
More recently, I experienced it in the confines of the gang unit at a maximum security prison in Northern California. I had been invited to speak with the prisoners about the ideas behind my book, The Inside-Out Revolution, and despite a few misgivings when my son and I had to sign a disclaimer that acknowledged that if we were taken hostage, they would not negotiate our safe release, I was looking forward to sharing the principles of who we are at core, before we grow up and begin living in our increasingly separate realities.
The talk seemed to be going well until one particularly large and heavily tattooed man, wearing the red trousers that marked him out to the guards and other prisoners as a convicted murderer, raised his angry hand at the back and said, "It sounds to me like your dissing Jesus."
The room got uncomfortably quiet, and when I asked him to explain what he meant, he said that I was suggesting that all people were a part of a larger energy that exists before the formation of any particular affiliation, religion, or spiritual belief system. When our minds get quiet and we are able to tap into life at this level, our burdens are lifted, at least for those moments, and we feel deeply connected to life and with one another, regardless of our differences.
To my surprise, he went on to say that this was his experience as well. The difference was that I was calling this energy a "Universal Mind," not "God," and he knew the peace of mind I was talking about was only available through his Lord and savior Jesus Christ, whereas I was saying that it was available to everyone, regardless of what they had come to believe.
I took a few moments to collect my thoughts, and when I looked into his eyes I could see that underneath his fear and uncertainty, there was a genuine desire to understand what I was saying. I told him that I could not make a stand for my story about what this spiritual energy really was or where it came from as being better or more accurate than his. But I was moved to discover that someone who seemed as unlike me as anyone I could imagine had seen the same truths about the energy behind life as I had, even though he had a different explanation than me for what it was or how it came about.
I went on to share that a number of people had asked me before coming to speak at the prison what a middle class white guy from a small town in New England could possibly have to share of value with gang members from the streets of the inner city. At first, I was inclined to agree, but then it occurred to me that while I hadn't done what they'd done, I'd felt how they felt. Just like them, I wanted to love and be loved. Just like them I wanted to experience more joy and less suffering in my life. And just like them, I wanted to feel at peace in myself and in the world.
The room grew incredibly quiet and still, to the point where my son asked me about it afterwards. It seemed to me that in that moment, everyone in the room had woken up from our separate thought created worlds into the deeper truth of our shared humanity. And whenever that happens, we experience peace and the kind of kinship C. S. Lewis described when he wrote "Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'"
So "Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie" -- but I don't need to be to stand side by side with those who defend the right to speak as we speak and believe as we believe. Because in the end, more important than anything I personally believe about what defines good, bad, right, or wrong, "Nous Sommes Human."
With all my love,
For more by Michael Neill, click here.