Living in Beirut
I’m reading a really interesting book by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman called From Beirut to Jerusalem. It’s not a recent book; it’s from 1989 (it won the National Book Award that year). It’s about Mr. Friedman’s early years as a correspondent in the Middle East.
Beirut in the 80s was the Hobbesian Wild West. There was a war going on with Israel; artillery shells were raining down at all hours. At the same time a Lebanese civil war was raging; local militias, criminal gangs, extremist-religious armies and kidnapping rings ran rife. Death came out of nowhere and at all hours. Entire city blocks would be leveled by truck bombs, for which no group even took the trouble to claim credit. At the morgue (when anyone cared enough to transport bodies to the morgue), corpses were not even afforded the dignity of being identified. It was an era of out-and-out anarchy, where death was frequent, random, and meaningless.
And yet people lived their lives. Kids went to school, businesses found ways to stay open, Tom Friedman pursued his journalistic calling.
Maybe the most popular Beirut mind game … was learning how to view one’s environment selectively.
I learned to be quite good at this myself. Late one afternoon in the summer of 1982, I was typing a story at the Reuters bureau when the crackle of machine-gun fire erupted in the park across the street. Another American reporter, who had just arrived in Beirut, ran to the window [and] became transfixed at the sight … he rushed over to me and said excitedly, “Did you see that? Did you see that guy? He was holding a gun like this right in his gut and shooting someone. Did you see that?”
I just looked up from my typewriter at this fellow and said, “Was he shooting at you? No. Was he shooting at me? No. So leave me alone, would you?”
As I was reading this, I was thinking: this is the artist’s life.
This is my life.
True, bombs aren’t going off on my block. But the world outside my skull is a minefield of chaos that feels, to me, a lot like Beirut in ’82. Death, real death, happens, and it happens up close and personal. Sudden tragedies strike me and people I love, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s just outside my head. Inside I’m tiptoeing past booby-traps of distraction, dereliction, laziness, arrogance, self-sabotage, not to mention spiritual upheaval and emotional disarray.
I’m living my own little Beirut every day. I’ll bet you are too.
And yet we both have to live our lives. Children have to be raised, livelihoods pursued, the duties of a citizen performed.
I find my attitude becoming a lot like Tom Friedman’s.
Did the bomb go off three doors down and not in front of our door? Good. Then don’t worry about it.
Is that sniper shooting at us? No? Then let’s go back to fixing dinner.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to adopt a Living In Beirut attitude. The force that most of us seem to be confronting today is not just the volume of incoming insanity, it’s the randomness. Why is this so dangerous? Because when bad stuff happens randomly, it produces hopelessness.
Human beings need meaning. The Living In Beirut attitude supplies meaning. It says to us, “Keep going. Keep taking care of your family, keep pursuing your calling. The current madness will pass. Keep living your life as if it had meaning, even if at the moment you don’t know what that meaning is. Because someday, bank on it, that meaning will become clear.”
In Israel last year I was interviewing a paratroop officer named Zeev Barkai. He was describing one particularly frantic night operation in an urban setting during the Six Day War of 1967. His commanding officer had sent him to locate and knock out one particularly dangerous enemy stronghold that the troops were calling “the House With the Burnt Roof.”
I am moving in the direction of this house. Suddenly voices call from the shadows.
“Barkai! Barkai! Help us!”
The men are from one of our companies. As battalion operations officer, I have little contact with individual troopers, so I don’t recognize anyone. But they know me. They’re begging me to take over, to lead them …
“We attacked that house back there … ”
“Two of our friends got shot on the stairwell … ”
“They’re still there, Barkai!”
The men are racked with anguish. I can see the house they’re talking about. Its roof is not burnt.
This is not my assignment. It is not the task my commanding officer has set for me. But I am an officer. What comes before me, I must act on. I cannot pass up a wounded man or turn aside from an emergency.
I organize the men to re-assault this new house. I will get to the House with the Burnt Roof later.
The life of the artist or the entrepreneur takes place in an interior and exterior no-man’s-land in which events and emergencies, many of them occurring randomly, compete for the individual’s attention. You and I have to be like Tom Friedman or Zeev Barkai, continually prioritizing and re-prioritizing—dismissing those crises (or opportunities) about which we can do nothing or in whose service we do not choose to expend our energies, while responding to and taking on what is truly serious and critical (while trying to keep a sense of humor about it all.)
What is important?
Why are we here, and what do we want?
Welcome to Beirut.
Dear Mr. Pressfield,
I so enjoyed this piece. I can’t agree more that outside of our minds, that booby traps of all sorts of human follies exist. They are the artistic resistance I think you are also referring to. After I saw your interview with Marie Forleo last week, I decided to “become a pro.” albeit part-time but I have kept at it. I show up at my laptop and write and not worry if it is good or bad. I am not going to worry about what is happening to my neighbor unless they come into my apartment and start beating each other up in front of me. I guess Beirut exists in all of us. Thank you for showing me the way.
Perfect. Thank you!
Thanks Steve. Perfect, spot-on; words to live by. Writing Wednesdays never fails to both inspire and ground me and I am more grateful than I can say.
You nailed this. If we let all the various ever-emerging distractions and supposed obligations run our lives, we’d never get anything done. Thanks.
Right on, Steven. I read that years ago and remember Friedman writing about playing golf amidst the chaos over there. That guy is the real deal. It reminded me of an account I read about when Bob Weir, soon to be of the Grateful Dead, first met Jerry Garcia. It was after-hours at a music store where Garcia was working. Garcia was in there practicing by himself. Years later Weir was still struck by the fact that at the time Garcia was unaware it was New Year’s Eve. Kind of similar type thing. Maybe not.
Mike, if it’s not exactly the same, it’s close enough. I had never heard that story. Thanks!
The dogs will bark and the caravan moves on…
The least interested party is in control.
Thank you for this.
Made my day.
Hence, the title of your book The WAR of Art.
Stephen Covey talked about this, the difference between Areas of Concern and Areas of Influence. Areas of Concern attract and distract us – things we can’t do anything about but get our attention and energy. Resistance.
I have some wonderful tapes from Jerrold Mundis about writer’s block. In them, he talks about the same idea: if you’re busy worrying about how to save the whales, you won’t write the book (start the business, etc.) that only you can do. Then you will have neither done your work nor saved (or contributed to saving) the whales.
It’s a focus performers have to learn, whether actors or athletes. If they get distracted by the attention – whether heckling, cheers – and sometimes coaching – they can’t get the job done.
Maybe that’s also why routine is so important – as you, Steven, have pointed out so often. We’re wired to take in information – that’s what our senses are for. Sleep and meditation are sorting out times. Maybe also that’s why real thinking is so akin to both, and so hard to get to.
My God. This is exactly it. Exactly the thing I’ve been trying to articulate and internalize for the last year.
Certain things keep hitting near me or around me and I allow them to mess with my mental peace as well as momentum. Thanks for articulating it so well.
You never fail to provide a nuanced and highly entertaining dose of motivation. Thank you, Steve! Always looking forward to Wednesdays because of this.
“Welcome to Beirut,” no one said it was going to be easy. Find, or better, create a safe haven in the chaos and just keep going. I agree with you, Steve, someday the meaning will become clear.
Brilliant, exactly what I needed to read RIGHT NOW. And I still need to view my environment selectively even when it’s bombarding me with GOOD things, or possibilities, or ideas. Sometimes having too many choices can be paralyzing or lead to a loss of focus.
The concept of surviving on two battlefields and how we must necessarily adapt to the often chaotic redirections is making so much sense. What great examples given.
Great post, what’s important to me is truly living life, dying empty! I don’t want to look back at my life with any regrets.
I finally became an author after staring out of my El Paso, Texas office window into Ciudad Juarez, 400 yards away, and watching ordinary citizens trying to go about their daily lives while their neighbors were being murdered left and right. One in three houses were abandoned and businesses were burned to the ground when they refused to pay for protection. Over 11,000 people were killed during those years in Juarez, and 70,000 across Mexico. A bullet even hit one of the buildings on our campus at UTEP. For a time I was worried about sitting in front of my office window. I know many people who lost loved ones, and continue to grieve. The killing continues but is not as publicized. Two U.S. Consulate workers in Juarez were shot and killed on their way to the bridge into the U.S. They left an infant screaming in the back seat. Writing has become my therapy and my way of sharing with the rest of the world the horrors of the Mexican drug wars.
It is immensely true that we are to keep focused on ourselves and let others live their life, unless we are sure that getting into smb’s else’s life is something we are to do at the moment, as it is what we do not for them but for ourselves.
The waves of anguish and injustice lapping on the thresholds of our lives are luring us into jumping into them and becoming nothing but their particle/ Enlarging it, so that it spreads.
And such participation comes at cost. we do not have voice for the song of our own. Our voice becomes a part of a choir.
And it is a kind of siren that tries to use us so that its enchanting song (and it is seldom a song of happiness and mutual love, but one of rage and anger) could be heard by as many people as possible.
And that song makes us forget (or even not to try to heed to) the song of our own, which everyone has.
I beleive there is some meaning in the fact that we are so susceptible to this siren’s songs. Maybe unless we overcome them our own song will not be pure?
Pressfield was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943, while his father was stationed there, in the Navy .