I found out about the March 22 bombings in Brussels as I was dropping my son off at his school. His teacher told me as she had just heard from her husband as well as from another parent. It’s sad that this has happened enough in our world that I can recall previous incidents of feeling the same reaction. An initial gut punch of shock, fear, and denial. A sadness upon the realization that the world just changed for the worse, and my world might have just gotten more dangerous. I wanted to have an adult conversation about it, but we couldn’t because the children were all right there at our feet. This is one of the concerns you have to have as a parent and things like this happen. How do you take in the information you want and need while protecting your child from it? We kept our conversations about it short. Thankfully the kids weren’t paying attention to us, and we parted ways as we do every morning, adults wishing each other well and me telling my son how much I love him, that I hope he has a good day, and assuring him that I will pick him up at the end of the day.
It was promising to be a lovely day in Gent weather-wise, so I had planned to go and explore the city a little on my own. Instead, I chose to go home and watch the news, partly due to fear and partly because I wanted to learn more facts. I got in the car and texted my husband to see if he heard the news yet. No mother should ever have to write to her husband about her son, “Is he safe at school?” The reality of the news was sinking in. I went home and monitored the internet for the rest of the day, with the cable news on in the background, counting down the minutes until I could pick my son back up and get him home. I wouldn’t feel comfortable until we were all together under our roof again.
It hits too close to home when you see places you’ve been, with your child, in the news as the location of a terrorist attack. We walked those halls in that airport as a family three times in the past 4 months, and my husband more than that for work travel. And he was on that metro line just weeks before the bombings.
It didn’t take long for memorial social media icons to start popping up. For the “#prayers” to start, for the words of support across media, and proclamations of pride and resilience. It’s downright sad that we, as a world, have seen this happen enough that there is a predictable series of reactions that unfold online.
Due to the time zone differences, it wasn’t until about noon here that people from the States started to check in. I had posted on Facebook so most knew right away that we were okay. Because we are the only connection most people have to Belgium, even knowing that we are some ways away from Brussels, they thought of us immediately. I appreciate so much that so many people care about us and our safely. It is nice to be loved in that way. It is sad that the terrorists are so devoid of that kind of love and support that they can turn into the monsters that they are. Many people wished us well and told me to stay safe. But how? The world has gone through this, over and over again, and clearly there is no way to keep it from happening again.
The terrorist attacks in Paris in November of 2015 occurred very shortly after we accepted our international assignment in Belgium. As we learned more and more about those attacks, and the existence of terrorist cells in Brussels, I became fearful and anxious about what we should do and if we should still move. I questioned our safety. I wondered, “what if…” But ultimately, we concluded that we could not allow the terrorist acts to change our daily life. We decided that the guaranteed benefits of this international assignment experience were too great to give up on due to “what ifs.” Just three months into our assignment, I’ve already learned and grown so much. I thought about that on the morning of the Brussels attacks, as I stood with our teacher from Ireland and with mothers from Iran and Sweden, with our children as well as children from many other countries nearby. We are all from different places, practice different faiths, and grew up in different cultures, but we all felt the same reaction to this terror.
The day after the attacks I spend time with other mothers from the school. We represented at least seven different countries and yet our reactions were the same. We worried about the safety of our families and ourselves. We wondered how there could be such evil in the world. How do we protect ourselves from it, and in some mothers’ cases, how do they make sure that they (and their families) don’t become stereotyped as being a part of the evil?
When something like this happens, my initial response is to try and make sense of it, to try and reassess my life and make sure I am living it to its fullest and in a way that ensures my life has meaning and value. But how do we ensure that? In the face of this evil, and in pondering the magnitude of our world – our universe – is truly living a life of great meaning and value possible? Very few people rise to a level of fame or authority or influence that gives them the ability to truly change the world. Realistically, I know I will likely not ever be one of those people. So what do I do? How do I make sense of all this and formulate an outcome that helps me feel better and gives me a sense of direction that doesn’t include giving up hope in humanity and halting the activities of everyday life? If I can’t change the world on a grand scale, is whatever influence I do have still important? Can I help my child become a good person that helps make the world a decent place? Can I help my neighbors and my community rise above hate and fear somehow? Is it possible to live a life with meaning and make a positive difference in this world? This is what I went to bed with in my head on the night of the attacks, and woke up many hours too early with the next day, unable to get back to sleep.
After I wrestled with all these philosophical thoughts and pushed them aside because they are impossible to answer, the practical concern that remains on repeat is, how do I keep my child and my family safe? How do we do so without giving up the dreams we have to travel and to experience our current surroundings to the fullest? Of course we can retreat entirely and hunker down in the comfort of our home for the rest of our lives, but so many opportunities would then be missed. Are we willing to give that up? Is that a life well-lived?
I believe that there is a balance between living the exploratory and adventurous life we want to lead during our international assignment and doing so in a way that is cautious, vigilant, and smart in the face of the possible evil that we could encounter. But how do we find that balance? What is the equation to use to calculate that risk versus reward? I have yet to figure that out but continue to redo the math, one day at a time.