The Mountain and the Explosion

The projected walk would be short and leisurely. We would find the trail behind the Catholic church that encircled the town of Hallstatt, Austria, population 900, and take in the view of the village, lake, and mountains.

By the time Justin and I surmounted the stone steps behind the church, my heart was pounding and my breathing labored. Justin, lithe and deceptively athletic, was fine.

The view was decent, but no more spectacular than it’d been at ground level, so we kept walking, eventually reaching a fork where one path led back down into Hallstatt. The other veered upwards and was marked with a few faded, indecipherable signs. A teenage Asian couple passed us from that direction, looking spry and bubbly.

“Wanna go up?” Justin asked.

“Sure.” A deep inhale. Exhale. “Why not?” Maybe this “path encircling the city” started another level up, where the views would be more impressive.

So we kept hiking, and I kept sweating, and more Asians in their late teens kept passing us on their way down the trail. Later, I’d learn that there’s a replica of Hallstatt in Luoyang, China, and I wondered if any of these tourists had seen — or at least heard of — the replica and were on a pilgrimage to see the real thing.

Justin’s easygoing and malleable, freely allowing others to take the lead. As I grew increasingly winded, he never insisted that we keep climbing. He only asked “Want to keep going?” with a look of perfect calm. His method, his demeanor, his way of being — all of it unintentionally Socratic: present the question, stand back, then let the student decide the answer for himself.

Clearly, we were headed up the mountain: each step I took negated the myth of the path encircling the city and of the leisurely hike.

Sweat rolled down my brow, cooling as it descended. Hallstatt was breezy and misty and chilly, and, despite the damp, the late March weather felt good, reminding me of my home state of Tennessee, which I’d sorely missed since I’d moved to the largely season-less Dubai. And I had come to Europe to hike. So why not hike? My heart was beating fast, but those petite Asians girls (whom I assumed had climbed the same path before me), unflappable with their umbrellas and striped knee socks and neon-colored backpacks, egged me on. I was an overweight American doofus, and at some level I wanted to rebel against type.

I was out of shape but I was young and I had survived, damnit.

“Yeah, let’s keep going.”

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On the way up I spotted a dingy sign that’d been propped against a chain-linked fence, as if someone couldn’t decide between throwing it away or displaying it properly. The neglected sign fascinated me far more than the markers about Franz Josef. More than the pictures of the Austrian salt miners who must have inspired Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarves. More than learning that a salt mine lay in the mountain’s core, a detail I must have learned in my preparation for this trip then promptly forgot.

The story found on the sign superseded all others. It read:

Fire

Fire came down to earth from heaven.

It is both a destructive and creative element.

In 1750, almost the entire centre of Hallstatt burnt to the ground.

Two houses with red facades located at the extreme edge of the fire zone recall this catastrophe.

I kept thinking, incredulously, “Fire came down to earth from heaven?” The sign made no attempt to elaborate. Nothing about a meteor, the supernatural, an alien spacecraft…Nothing. Was something lost in translation?

I believe the sign was meant to accompany a nearby art installation, so maybe the phrase was meant to be read metaphorically. Probably, the first three lines were meant to be read as a separate narrative, a kind of Promethean fable, apart from the last two.

I’ve since tried to discover what caused the Hallstatt fire, but there’s nothing online.

As I climbed ever-upwards, I kept turning the phrases over in my mind.

“Fire came down to earth from heaven.”

“It was both a destructive and creative element.”

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The explosion happened around 8 am, give or take a few minutes, and it wasn’t that loud. There was enough distance between the departures gate above my head and the arrivals gate, where I was waiting to have my bags checked before catching a bus into Brussels proper, that I had no idea of the scale of the explosion. I immediately assumed a terrorist attack, though.

The reverberation was the most visceral component. The whole ceiling shook, loosening dust and sediment in a burst. “Woof” — bits of the particle board ceiling fell to the floor.

Moments before I’d been thinking about terrorism, as one does as one prepares to have one’s bags riffled through. Terrorism makes you wait, I thought. That’s one of its major side-effects. It destroys infrastructure. Then, on the tail end of that not-terribly-insightful thought, “BOOM.”

My immediate reaction was “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I ran a few steps, following the people around me who’d scattered, then halted. Although my heart was racing, I had enough wherewithal to think, What am I running away from? What am I running towards? I could just as well be running into an explosion as away from one…into machine-gun wielding psychopaths as away from them. And besides, the only exit was through the baggage check line.

My best bet was to stay close to the ponytailed security officer who looked as though he might LARP and forge Medieval swords in his free time. This security office was nerdy — he had the requisite ponytail — but he was stout, projecting not only confidence, but the epic confidence of an alpha nerd steeped in anime and fantasy novels who also happens to lift weights.

Before, I’d noticed his good posture and the self-satisfaction he took in his job of guiding people looking for an exit around the corner to the final security line, where he’d guided me moments earlier. Despite that job’s mundanity, you could tell by his demeanor that he’d pictured the shit going down hundreds of times. So when the bomb exploded, Ponytail guy acted with aplomb. He barely jumped then held out his hands in a calming gesture that said, “Keep your distance and don’t hop the barrier.” Both his training and what-I-imagined-to-be his interior fantasy life (imagining himself cleaving Bugbears and Orcs as Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian soundtrack blared) served him well.

After my brief turn and run, my fellow passengers and I moved into the vicinity of Mr. Ponytail, a few other security guards, and the exit. I peered at the unclaimed baggage, suspicious, but with a resigned docility. There was nothing to do but be cow. You’re forced to wait for the signal.

So I waited for it.

After 15 minutes — it could have been fewer; it could have been more — the signal came. We were shuffled out of the baggage check area and began to speed walk to the exit. Overhead pipes had burst and pools of water had collected in the airport’s lobby. As we descended the escalator in an orderly line, a small amount of glass collapsed, loosened from the explosion, and someone yelped in alarm. Inexplicably, a line from one of my favorite Mr. Show sketches, “Mayostard,” popped into my head: “Let’s get the hell out of here.” I guess my reaction to terrorism (as it is to most things) is quoting 90’s sketch comedy.

This was before I saw blood in a glass elevator; then bloody footsteps leaving the elevator, leading outside.

Outside in the parking lot, a safe distance from the airport, a young boy with a bloody bandaged hand — with blood speckled around his ear — chatted with his family. He seemed in good spirits. Three or four women cried; one man was close to tears. A woman in a long orange wool coat paced, crying as she held a phone to her ear. I wanted to hug her — I wanted to comfort so many people — but we were all in our own worlds, reaching out to our loved ones. Or trying to. My personal cell was without a SIM card, but I’d managed to send out a message to my father through the wifi network while waiting for the go-ahead in the airport.

The day was overcast and in the mid 40s. We waited. Sirens. Ambulances and fire trucks and police vehicles rushing to the scene. Some people stayed put while others, perhaps those who knew the area better, walked in mass over an overpass, hoping to find transportation out of the area. A news crew positioned their camera on the parking ramp while soldiers patrolled the airport’s roof. I took a few photos with my new DSLR camera, trying to fit blown-out airport windows into frame. Eventually the crowd moved into the DHL shipping parking lot across from the airport, where I’d wait a few hours until buses took us to municipal sports complex nearby.

I rarely if ever read my horoscope, but I thought about the one I’d read the day prior that advised me to “have patience when confronted with unforeseen circumstances and a change of plans.”

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We are not stable. We all contain in us the energy of the Big Bang.

I know very little about the psychology of the young Muslim men who decided to become terrorists. I know that many are angry and alienated, and that this anger is not unfounded. (The unemployment rate of Muslim men in Molenbeek, an impoverished district of Brussels where the bombers schemed their plot, is upwards of 40%.) I know that their anger is given expression and amplified through communities that stoke extremism which is born, at least in part, of failed Western promises.

Maybe the suicide bombers’ rage was such that an explosion — being in the center of an explosion — seemed a fitting solution: an inner violence manifested, the subjective experience objectified.

How does a person get to this point, tempted to both showcase and snuff out their fire?

I can’t speak to their rage, or, if they suffered, to their pain. Likewise, I know far too little about radical Islam to address the topic authoritatively. Independent of these two factors, I want to briefly examine extremism and (more pointedly) suicidal violence.

I’d theorize that this path begins with a drastic move towards self- and world-correction, and that it involves the confusion and intermingling of the two.

“Drastic world/self correction” stems from a relatable place. Think of the systems we have to navigate: religion, economics, secularism, materialism, progressivism, conservatism, nationalism, racism, sexuality, family, dietary ethics, etc. etc. Where is the self in this morass? For some, especially for the young in the process of building their identity, the self is so fragmented and confused that attempts to “course correct” towards wholeness veer into extremism.

I remember a down-and-out man from my hometown getting baptized. When he emerged from the water, he told a church elder, “You’re about to see something the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the days of the Apostle Paul.” I must have been 11 or 12. I was standing under the awning outside of the church building when I heard shouting in the distance. The man approached, hair still damp from being immersed, his eyes fixed on some point at the edge of the parking lot. His head shook; he clenched his fists; his whole body bottled a violent energy. As he approached I could make out what he was saying, “I rebuke thee Satan! I rebuke thee demons and devils!”

There was no catechism in our church: salvation was as simple as responding to the altar call and getting into some water. There’d been no time to educate him about our “church culture” — to say, “We’re not a charismatic church” or, more flatly, “We don’t use language like that, inside or outside of the church walls.”

Frightened, my friends and I were shepherded back into the church building by adults.

I still think about the man sometimes, and what his life looked like. To him, celebrating salvation with a hymn and some pats on the shoulder must have seemed conservative and staid.

He wanted a sign.

The demons in his mind were so entrenched that they defined his reality. His new, salvation-filled paradigm required an outer expression, one more grandiose than baptism in a conservative church…one that inverted the traditional understanding of salvation as grace and surrender into an act of will-to-power. “This means war,” he must have thought before staging an epic battle against evil in the parking lot. Possibly unfamiliar with the ritual of baptism, he created a new one, a personal one — one imbued with far greater scale, drama, and historical impact. The greater the inner problem, the greater the external reaction.

I don’t want to sound glib, but the guy exploded.

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G.K. Chesterton said that for certain people, especially young men, “the inside gets too big for the outside…[One] doesn’t know how to relate the [the mind to the outside world].” I think this incongruity haunted both the down-and-out man just as it haunts the theoretical suicide bomber. Both of their actions contain elements of the theatrical. Both are closely linked to death (albeit symbolic, in the baptized man’s case). And most importantly, both of these individuals convinced themselves that their struggles were universal in scale. (“You will see something the likes of which has not been seen since the days of St. Paul.”)

This is an overcorrection into (perceived) transcendence.

Having fallen prey to the delusion of solipsism, the self-corrector, unable to reconcile the inner and the outer, now wishes to correct the world in order to solve the problem of the self. His life has been small. It hasn’t lived up to his expectations. To live out this grandiose expectation of himself, he looks for a quick fix — a quick rise without the daily grind. (Maybe the “daily grind” isn’t an option for him, as is evidenced by unemployment rates.) He must make himself Godlike to reach this “fix,” and this requires an epic gesture, which requires an epic narrative.

Of course, the certainty he longs for is a Platonic state wholly divorced from life. It is only through nullification/surrender/death that “peace” is found, and on some level, the perpetrator understands this. Still, he only has to adhere to his newfound cosmology for a short time. His doubts have to be suppressed only long enough to go through with the grand action. At long last, through a suicide killing — through an act of despair disguised as an action of hope — the inner despair may be showcased and some sort of equilibrium may be achieved.

In falling for this brand of thinking, the individual has clearly devised an impossible solution. For one, he fools himself into thinking that violent actions may lead to lasting peace — in this case an Islamic state. But on a personal level, again, he is unable to accept both his and the world’s contradictions.

The suicidal extremist thinks, “I cannot make all of you die via these means,” i.e. I cannot purify every problem in an instant. Therefore I will shut you all out — I will annihilate the world through the only means available: I will annihilate myself.”

When the solution to one’s problems involve not reconciling the self to the world, but the conquering of the world in order to satiate the self, one has misunderstood the limits — and even the goal — of humanity. It’s no wonder that Hitler, as early as 1923, in the inchoate stages of his political career, spoke of the possibility of suicide freely and frequently: he was the ultimate example if conflating his utopian dreams with his worth as a individual.

The most drastic self-correction available. To rid oneself of oneself. To try to achieve “transcendence” and paradise by opting out, by cheating. This is the most extreme case of overcorrection. This is the most extreme case of failing to properly reconcile oneself with the world.

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Justin and I stopped in a gazebo (constructed at the local woodworking school, I assume) and I caught my breath. We’d just spotted a boxy orange house a few levels up the path that looked like it might mark the trail’s end. Was it a bed and breakfast? Could we get some food there, or better yet, a cold beer?

“Want to keep going?” Justin asked. “It’s up to you, dude.” There was a light sheen of sweat on his forehead, but his breathing was regular.

I walked out of the gazebo and looked up at the orange house, which was architecturally incongruent when compared to the houses below. An anomaly.

For some reason, I suddenly got it into my mind that this building was a mini-Buddhist monastery and that all of these passing Asians were on a pilgrimage there. That all these teenagers knew some secret that we didn’t. I imagined knocking on the door and having a wizened Asian open it. “Ah, I have been expecting you,” he’d say before pulling me in to read my palms or tarot cards or the tea leaves or whatever Buddhist caricatures do to divine fortunes. The man who lived in this mini-monastery would become, in essence, the wizard character from Joseph Campbell’s hero’s cycle. I had been looking for a guide for a long time. For a sign. Maybe someone could help me.

I breathed in and out heavily, my breath mist. I was a sweaty mess. Once again Justin left the decision to me. “Want to see what it is? Or we could go back down. Either way.”

Of course, I only entertained the idea of the “Buddhist Wizard” for a second, but still, the house peaked my curiosity, and that curiosity overcame my aching legs.

We trekked uphill another two levels. Having arrived at the orange house, I peered inside. I could see a table, and laying on it a full skeleton. The rest of the room was bare. This was no mini-Buddhist monastery. It was…what? A museum dedicated to the Salt Mine Workers of yore? And it was closed either because it was Good Friday, or because the holiday season had not yet started.

I looked up. More levels to climb. No respite here. Not even a beer.

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When I was growing up, a guy at my church ended his prayers with “Lord, Come Quickly.”

This phrase always raised eyebrows.

At times I have hated this sentiment, and at others I have fully understood it. This is as it should be, I guess. I want life, which is duality and mystery and conflict, but I also want certainty. What did you think would happen when I reached the orange house? Did I think I’d get like, a divine revelation or something? Maybe. Maybe I wanted a sign. Maybe I wanted all of the loose threads from my entire life, and even the thread that included the explosions at the Brussels airport, to combine. Maybe, just as I reached the top of the mountain, I’d have a spiritual experience. The ghost of James Brown would descend from heaven and demand, “Have you seen the light?” and, ecstatic, I’d answer in the affirmative by doing backflips.

But on the other hand, I didn’t need such certainty. I remember so many stories and questions and loose connections that day on the mountain: a child-like fascination that kept my feet moving onward until I was 900 meters above sea level, unexpectedly arriving at a viewing platform over Lake Hallstatt. (By the way, at the summit we also discovered a funicular, which explained why we always saw Asians walking down, but never up, the mountain.) Here I was in Austria, in the land of fairytales, in this place that the Celts first settled in 800 BC.

In some ways, everything in my life was lacking. Where was my mentor? Where was the girl at my side? Shouldn’t I have started a family by now? But in other ways, nothing was lacking. On that particular Good Friday, just three days after the attacks in Brussels, the mountain felt ancient, bursting with meaning, a liminal space that answered nothing but that supplied enough mystery, narrative, beauty to keep my feet moving.

Life and death sit so close to each other. In some ways I can sympathize with those drastic self-correctors, those people who want the quick fix. We want the view from the mountaintop without having to walk up it. We want drugs and instant enlightenment instead of meditation; we want love at first sight and easy sex without dedication and the messy side effects that entails. We want to arrive at wisdom without having to walk through the flames — the dazzling future without the burden of the present moment. We want the wizard who will answer every question to appear.

But the contradictions and the messiness are who we are, and what the world is.

The assertion of our wills can take manifest forms, be they destructive or creative. The impossible dream of living in the world is to assert oneself without having to deal with the messy aftereffects. This is the dream of those who act out violently, then inevitably turn the gun on themselves. But it’s a crying out, too: an assertion of pain and injustice that only adds to the propagation of pain and injustice.

When Joss Whedon gave his commencement speech at Wesleyan, he said the following:

The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.

You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key — not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in.

This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.

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It’s been a month since I stood in the Brussels airport and had a bomb explode overhead. And I guess this chapter has been, in part, an attempt to make sense of what happened there. Maybe that’s impossible; maybe the reasons for the actions of that day are too unquantifiable. Too horrible.

But I think that accepting our contradictions and humanity, while still pushing against them in healthy way, will lead to greater peace. “An evil and adulterous generation craves a sign,” Jesus said. Maybe because life itself, with all its contradictions, is the sign.

I think back to the birth of everything in the Big Bang. “All is burning,” the Buddha taught. Life is fire, and we are unstable. So the question becomes, how will we use our time and our fire? How will we reconcile ourselves to our contradictions? And, having looked inside ourselves and seen both darkness and light, will we be able to look at others who struggle with the same questions and love them for their broken humanity?

I think back to the sign that perplexed me so much when I first saw it. After some reflection, it still seems enigmatic. Which is exactly as it should be.

Fire came down to earth from heaven.

It was both a creative and a destructive element.