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.