Every now and then, during meditation, I’ll cry. They aren’t tears of distress, nor of purely parasympathetic arousal (I’ve got supported bridge pose for that!). They represent the meeting of two trains of inquiry I’ve had for awhile regarding ethical behaviour.

A Rwandan genocide survivor at the Gisozi memorial in Kigali looks at pictures of victims of the genocide, in which 800,000 people died. Picture: Reuters

The first train of thought extended from a discussion regarding non-harm and mass consumerism in which the collective conclusion was the inability to avoid harm and focusing on minimizing it. Despite my dissatisfaction at this conclusion, I could not think of another way to approach living in a system of logic that devalues human life and life in general by replacing that value with the exchange value of capitalism. So, my rationality failing me, I relegated this problem to my unconscious to crunch on.

The second train came about from reading about the Rwandan genocide, and rethinking the value of human life in modernity. It’s difficult for many people who have grown up privileged in Canada to understand the ease and rapidity at which a human being can be stripped of everything – everything – save their bare skin and bones. Even more difficult to see how the logic of modernity has rationalized this human stripping, rationalized the use, reduction and violation of human beings, human lives, the way it has.* The idea that every life has intrinsic, non-hierarchical value strikes me as truly radical, and something that should NEVER be taken for granted. (By this, I definitely do not mean universal human rights, or equal rights, for this is not merely a value that can be measured so easily!)

The tears have become a deep, pre-verbal experience that affirms, all human life has value. For me, it is a small step toward what it means to be ethical and to struggle against and form resistance to how modernity strips us and our world. It is easy to behave decently when you live in decent times – but to hold this in your core, to truly be, to exist, to have more than your bare flesh, means to work on knowing a deeper value of life until you are able to recognize its incredible power – and its fragility. It means understanding that human life is a gift, one that we can squander so thoughtlessly! It means recognizing the compromises you make in how you conduct yourself and having to answer to them without guilt but rather, honesty. And mindfulness and compassion. It means developing the strength and courage to withstand how modernity dehumanizes human beings – not only for others, but for oneself. This is where ethical action begins for me: not in theories, nor in emotions, but rather, with the breath.

"We have not yet discovered what it means to be human... When we have learnt what it is to be human, when we have suffered it, and loved it, we will know our true estate..." - Ben Okri


*To that end, many excellent theorists have written on the topic. I would recommend in particular, Hannah Arendt who wrote, in an accessible manner, about modernity, the nation state, human rights and the Holocaust. Giorgio Agamben is also frequently cited in this regard, and Homo Sacer is worth reading.  In his book, An Imperfect Offering, Dr. James Orbinski, who also served with MSF in Rwanda, recommends reading Guy Debord‘s The Society of the Spectacle (I’ll second that, although it is not directly related to genocide) and Emmanuel LevinasEntre Nous: On Thinking of the Other. For a less academic approach, I would suggest Romeo Dallaire‘s Shake Hands with the Devil.