Shared experience gives value to public spaces
As I write this, Notre Dame in Paris is burning.
The cathedral, built some 800 years ago, has survived two world wars, plagues and famines, great and bloody revolutions, counter-revolutions and decades of chaos and violence.
But on an unremarkable Monday afternoon, it burst into flames.
How quickly solidity dissolves.
It's something that everyone struggles to grapple with. The fixtures of life, the norms and structures one takes for granted, the floor and ceiling and walls around us can, in an instant, give way to the smoke and ash of instability.
Everything, always, is shifting. At a fundamental level, at a rational level, we understand this.
Still, knowing it is one thing. Understanding it, being prepared for it, grasping it is quite another. When buildings that have stood a hundred years fall, how are we to react?
We live in an increasingly secular age and in many ways, I think that is a good thing. It has freed society from the binds of division and intolerance, undone the artificial structures of hierarchy, opened up fields of cultural mobility once unimaginable. The age of cultural liberalism and religious freedom has allowed us untold advances in science and logic and reason.
But these principles of individualism cannot offer explanations to everything.
How does one explain the meaning of a building? Not through historical terms, though they may provide context. Not through statistical measures, though they might offer quantification. The meaning of a place is something much more visceral. Something almost... spiritual.
We find meaning in our shared experiences. In our reverence or our prayer. Holy places are not built so much as they are made, by hundreds of years and millions of believers.
And in that sense we can and do make things holy merely by our presence. These sites become vessels into which we invest our identities. They become representations of who we are, physical manifestations of the millions of shared experiences.
But beyond that, places of shared faith become places of refuge. They are fixtures, areas of permanence, of emotional and social solidity in an age of increasing uncertainty. Centers of culture and icons of identity in an age when both are fraying.
I've written before about how school shootings destroy not just a single community, but a sense of safety in communal spaces across the nation. Watching an emblem of Christianity turn to ash and smoke, my mind was drawn again and again to the victims of shootings in houses of worship across the world. The 11 dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The 50 dead in a Christchurch mosque.
I think of those in Yemen, condemned to death by famine by an American blockade. Bombed every day. How do they find faith? When every waking moment must be this same hell of every structure you knew destroyed. The buildings and streets on which you had lived your life turned to rubble.
I think of the historically black churches in Louisiana burned by a right wing bigot. Of the Uighur Muslim shrines and holy places turned to rubble as the Chinese government moves the population into internment camps.
I don't know what will happen after we die. I can't say with any certainty how this earth came into being or where we will go.
But I know that every single person deserves a place of freedom and security. And I know that when we share in faith together, we can create a sense of meaning for a place and for a country that can't ever be explained by architects or engineers.
The collapse of such a famous structure gave voice to the worst among us, the conspiracy theorists and the fascists who decry what they say as the collapse of western civilization. But there is no western civilization, no division of people along lines or borders. Every cathedral and every holy places across the globe, every synagogue and mosque is made holy by the worship and by the faith of average people.
No border can ever create that. It cannot be defined by geographic divisions. And it cannot be recreated by the myriad of private corporations lining up with promises to clear away the rubble and create an ersatz recreation rehabilitation.
So long as we seek to privatize public spaces and wage wars for profit, these sites are under threat. Not just our churches but our schools and libraries, our parks and roads. The very idea of community is foreign to those who find value only in statistical measures.
But I don't think we should resign ourselves to cynical defeatism, or embrace the divisions of ages past. The value of Notre Dame was found in our collective embrace of it as something for all humanity to share. One wishes we could extend that love and care to all quarters of the globe, and to all people. After all, the things that seem so permanent can disappear in an instant. And it's only through our faith that they can be rebuilt.
Wallace Milner is a senior at West Linn High School.
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