Courtney Ball

What Kept Me Up Tonight

Photo by U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Patrick Nichols – Public Domain,

Two Stories not Easily Forgotten

I heard two stories today that I can’t get out of my head. I haven’t written a blog post in a long time. It’s nearly midnight and I want to sleep, but I can’t because of these stories. So I’m doing what a writer does: unloading in words, hoping I can write these thoughts and feelings out of my system.

The first story came after a beautiful afternoon in Iowa City where I had two meetings for work. In both meetings, people told me how pleased they were with my writing. One person called me brilliant; another cried because she felt my words had beautifully captured her purpose in life. I’m not making this up! It’s actually been a very gratifying workweek. So, my colleague Faraz and I were heading to a late celebratory lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants. The sun was out, and the temperature was in the comfortable upper 60s.

At one point Faraz said to me (this is a paraphrase), “Last week when I was here for Mission Creek, I met this homeless guy and talked to him for a while. We actually ended up having a meal together. He told me about this bridge he and some other people sleep under, and how some nights drunk college guys will go down there with baseball bats and beat the shit out of them just for fun.”

And I have to say, when I heard that, I experienced a type of anger I hadn’t felt in a long time. I’m normally a gentle, understanding, and forgiving person, but some part of me wanted those college boys to die. What possible reason could there be for keeping people like that in our world? I thought. These idiots take their position as some of the most privileged individuals on earth and use it to inflict suffering on the most vulnerable members of their community. They did it for sport, a fun late-night activity after a trip to the bars. This is inexcusable, unforgivable behavior.

The conversation moved on…

…leaving that anger to fester. Faraz and I had a delightful lunch, and I forgot about it for a while. I got in my car, dropped Faraz off, and headed back to Cedar Rapids, still enjoying the sunshine. Then I heard the second story. I was listening to NPR, and the news came on. In a very brief segment, they announced that the United States had last night dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in the history of the world.

In the story I heard, there was no questioning the morality of using such a weapon of mass destruction. They simply quoted Gen. John Nicholson’s statement: “This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K, [or the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan].”

You won’t read this line in the story linked above, but the newscaster giving the report I heard mentioned that the bomb had a kill zone of “more than a thousand meters.” The target was networks of underground hideouts used by ISIS in the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The gargantuan bomb, nicknamed the “Mother Of All Bombs”, was deployed in the hope that the concussive force would penetrate into the tunnels and caves, killing fighters who would otherwise be too hard to reach.

The general also said they had taken every precaution to avoid civilian deaths. Well, how wonderful for us all, I thought. I’m sure it will turn out to be a very tidy operation with no long-term negative impacts on the region.

The report lasted a few minutes, and then we were on to other news and stories. My day moved forward. I picked up my wife and daughter, went home, and had–all in all–a nice evening.

Now I can’t sleep.

These stories have resurfaced, and they won’t leave me alone. Part of what troubles me is I can’t reconcile them with all the goodness I know. I love life. I love people. There is so much in the world for which I am thankful. I delight in it daily. I try to share it with others. And yet there is also this horrible, sinful, evil darkness that penetrates every part of human existence. It’s always there, threatening to rise up, even in my own heart. I am no exception. No one is. Sometimes, I can’t get away from it.

One more story.

I spent the morning talking to my friend Hassan. He spoke about his childhood in Egypt, how from as early as he could remember, his part of the world has been surrounded by war. Many people in Egypt and throughout the Arab world fought (or continue to fight) in these wars. It has, he explained, reduced their understanding of life to a story of conflict. They see the existence as a battlefield, and that poisonous outlook has infected many people’s understanding of religion.

Knowing this, Hassan’s parents made him study Islam at Al Azhar, one of the oldest centers of Islamic learning in the world. There he was given a fuller, more informed, more beautiful understanding of Islam. In Cairo during his university days at Al Azhar, Hassan was present for the height of conflict in the Egyptian Revolution. He documented injuries and fatalities in a makeshift medical clinic near Tahrir Square, directly witnessing the effects of this world’s brokenness. He saw firsthand the brutality of human aggression. Ultimately, he watched his revolution fail, knowing that the pain and sacrifice may not have made any difference at all.

And yet, in spite of all that, he remains one of the kindest people I have ever met. He is a visionary, peaceful leader in a time of escalating turmoil. Somehow, even with everything he’s encountered, he still finds ways to be this positive, compassionate person. I’m sure he has nights like the one I’m having now, where he can’t quite let go of the ugliness that tainted his day. I wonder how he deals with them. It doesn’t seem to me like he moves forward by ignoring the bad stories. Instead, from what I can tell, he faces them, acknowledges the darkness–sometimes even calls it out publicly as we all should–and tries his hardest to project a light that others can look to for hope.

I don’t have any great answer to the evil we find in this world, in our human hearts. Nothing I’ve ever heard satisfies the “why” of it all. I just know it’s there, and it’s not to be ignored. I guess I also know that more anger, escalating violence, and bigger bombs will not ultimately be a helpful response. Those reactions accomplish nothing but deeper darkness. The only worthwhile answer I can find is Hassan’s: to project love and light and connect with others who do the same.

Peace be upon you, my friends.

With love,

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Courtney Ball

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