Last Tuesday (March 16th) marked the 12th anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie – an American activist working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She was 23.
I was only 11 at the time of Corrie’s death in 2003; I doubt I heard of it. If I did, I certainly didn’t take much notice, as I have no recollection of it being a current event news item. Though the 9/11 attacks 18 months earlier had drawn more of my attention to this general region of the world than I had hitherto given it, I knew next to nothing about the Middle East. If I thought about it at all, it was probably only vague images associated with conflict, terrorism, violence, deserts, oil, and hijabs that were evoked in my mind– the stereotypes of a 10 year old, publicly educated, moderate-conservatively raised young American. I was grossly ignorant regarding Afghanistan and Iraq (the U.S.’s “shock and awe” campaign in the latter began 3 days after Corrie died), let alone Israel or Palestine – I doubt I thought much about these places, if at all; I don’t even think I knew that the Holy Lands was a contested region.
I am now no longer 11, nor (thankfully) quite so uninformed on complex international issues as I was then.
And now, this year, like Corrie, I am also 23.
I was thinking about Rachel Corrie on my walk the other afternoon through the little corner of rural South Korea in which I currently find myself living. Ironically, it’s because of my interest in Palestine and the conflict there that I’m here this year; a Google search my senior year of college for opportunities to serve with human rights groups in Palestine turned up MCC’s SALT program. Approximately 2 years later, I am now doing SALT…and somehow wound up–not in Palestine, nor even in the Middle East at all–but in the Republic of Korea; but that’s another story.
So I was thinking about Rachel Corrie, and what it would be like to die at 23. (I had also just finished reading Leonid Andreyev’s phenomenal short story “The Seven Who Were Hanged,” which had prompted similar thoughts.) What if this was it? What if this was my last day alive?? I tried to imagine how I’d feel about that, if I had time to reflect on that fact (somehow) after I was actually dead.
I was having trouble concentrating on my intended imagining. Partly because I was distracted by the view of the mountains (omnipresent in Korea) rolling away before me and the valley spreading idyllically below me. The past few days have brought fine weather that truly feel like the first days of spring; I had just seen a bunch of purple flowers spread along the side of the cracked concrete road that weren’t there last week, and the very beginnings of bloom on the cherry blossom trees; as I perched on a rock seat in the parking area of a Buddhist monastery, the breeze lapped gently against my face and lulled me into something like a waking sleep. I felt utterly peaceful. And happy.
And it was also partly because I felt so happy that I couldn’t properly imagine anything as foreign as death happening to me – young, healthy, twenty-three, and free.
There was one thing clear in my mind as I struggled to think a bit more about this question, though: I. LOVE. LIFE. No way would I be okay with dying right now; if I were to die today and get a chance to think about it right afterwards, I’m pretty darn sure I would say, “Nope. Definitely too soon – I have received so much already, for sure – all of life is undoubtedly a gift!…but I haven’t lived enough yet. It’s not nearly time for life to be over for me…I’m really just only beginning!!!” And so on.
And yet, thinking thoughts such as these, about how much I love life and want most of all simply to live as fully as possible, I also remember that, every year, people like Rachel Corrie lay down their lives because they think (as I do, theoretically) that other people ought to be able to live their lives as fully as possible, too – and, in fact, that our own capacity for living fully will be hindered as long as other human beings are wrongfully hindered in this capacity for themselves. As long as fellow human beings, in other countries or our own, are at all mistreated or denied basic rights and dignity, we are hurt, too. “Privileged” classes don’t actually have immunity from the pains of this world. (I guess all this is just another way of phrasing those famous words of MLK – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”)
And yet, there’s been a tiny part of me that, in the past (not so much now), has been tempted to envy Rachel Corrie–not for her sad fate as her ability to be there, to be part of something that immensely matters, and to make an ultimate sacrifice. Now let me be clear: I do not have a death wish, and I’ve learned much about both how false it is to romanticize things like dying young (the temptation to do so can be one of the darker tendencies of INFJ types like me), even if it’s for the sake of something noble, something one believes in whole-heartedly. Death is ugly. Hands-down. And people should never die young, part of me deeply protests. But Rachel Corrie died because she was protesting something ugly. She believed in something. She presumable believed (again, like me) in at least part of the American Dream–the “liberty and justice for all” part, or at least the ideal behind these words (though these days they are probably spoken most often and most heartily by elementary school kids reciting the Pledge first thing in the morning – or if you’re one of those beloved kindergartners, shouting it). But unlike me, however, Rachel Corrie has had a chance to truly prove (if you will) the authenticity of her convictions (I think here, for myself, of “the thirst for an immediate deed” that Dostoevsky describes so well in The Brothers Karamazov, Book One, Chapter 5, in introducing Alyosha and other young people like him–lots of relevant good stuff in this section, by the way, and I recommend it for further reflection on this topic).
And yet, it is a thing of no small significance that Rachel Corrie laid down her life for her friends. She was in Palestine as an activist, and as such, was putting herself knowingly at risk for the sake of others. She laid down her life for her friends.And while keeping my own self-remonstrance against romanticizing death strongly in mind, I can’t keep these words of Jesus from coming to mind, too:
“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
When I first started writing this post, I intended for it to mostly be about remembering Rachel Corrie’s story. Obviously, this post hasn’t been strictly about just her story, after all. It’s been about the intersection of her story and mine. (And more stories, besides.) But that’s okay–it is how stories interact with and impact other stories that makes differences, after all. I believe that every story is connected, somehow, and that history is something like a collection of concurrent stories, working both against each other or collaboratively, to produce a large part of the state of this world that we humans (and other creatures) now inhabit…I also believe that every story matters, and every action in them, even the very smallest and hidden, unpublicized and unknown–and perhaps these, most of all.
But today, I want to specifically remember Rachel Corrie’s story–to both salute her sacrifice, and (even more, perhaps), to grieve and mark afresh the very real loss of a young life, which I am now in a better position to personally understand than I have ever been before, being now the same age myself as Corrie was when she died.
And in remembering Rachel Corrie, to remember along with her the countless other deaths of young people (Palestinian and Israeli) as a result of the ineffably sad conflict in the Holy Lands–other young people like myself, with names and stories unknown to me, but no less significant for that, and who are certainly not unknown to or forgotten before God.
(We should remember all their parents and family members and friends, too–all those who loved them and think of their names and faces every day.)
Today, I want to remember these people–not for the sake of stirring up a political argument or heated discussion, and not for the sake of romanticizing or otherwise glorifying young death, or death at all, but mostly because I’m really just starting to grasp for myself how truly magnificent, beautiful, rich, and vastly, vastly precious LIFE is. I know I would not want to die at 23. I wish no one had to die so young. I wish that the world and its inhabitants was entirely at peace.
But it’s not, and we’re not-not yet.
So, for the sake of life for all, and for the sake of the dream and hope of peace, let’s remember (today and afterwards) Rachel Corrie, and those she died trying to help.