Overcoming Overwhelm with Compassion

The following is a transcription from Rev. Summer Albayati’s reflection from Refugee In My Own Home: A Unitarian Universalist Vigil for Gaza held last December 3rd, 2023.

Click here for the Youtube recap.

Beloveds, I’m the Reverend Summer Albayati. I’m Iraqi, Arab, Muslim, a UU minister. It is good that you’re here today. Thank you for being here. We all need to be in vigil together.

I will be speaking to you on Overwhelm.

The four year-old girl across my television screen was burned on her face and body. Her legs wrapped in casts, the missile hit their home while they were sleeping. She lost her whole family. She was the sole survivor at the age of four years old. The hospital staff said all they could do was put lotion on her burns.

She will need to leave Gaza, Palestine, to obtain surgeries elsewhere. What do the images we see do to us? They should make us feel more compassion, but in the overwhelm we might feel the opposite. Our anger might become displaced somehow, causing us to turn away, to turn away from the images, the words, the sounds we hear, the experiences of the other.

Turn away from compassion and love. How do we allow the overwhelm to open and soften our heart more rather than harden and close it to the pains of the world? One day I remember my cat getting upset as he heard explosions emanating from the television. I watched him carefully wondering what it was doing to his DNA.

Repeatedly, he would jerk every time he heard an explosion. It disturbed him, obviously. Why was it easier for me to handle, I thought. Was I not as disturbed? What was it doing to my DNA? What was it doing to my psyche? Then I thought, the sounds of explosions could be turned down when viewed online. Not so if you are in Gaza.

The sounds overwhelm and terrorize. It must get deep down into your DNA. Does one ever become used to the sounds?

Overwhelm. I was listening to an expert on the effects of the occupation on children in Palestine, and she spoke of the trauma they experience. It’s long term. It is not sleeping through the night, it is losing hope, it is terror on a daily basis as children are kidnapped by soldiers in the middle of the night.

It is the night terrors and bedwetting and losing sleep and not eating. It is not getting enough nutrition because you are limited in what is considered an appropriate level of calories for a Palestinian child.

Appropriate level of calories, as opposed to that for an Israeli child. It is not being able to finish school. It is growing up in prison and enduring beatings and torture. It is the fear that you will never live in peace during your lifetime.

Overwhelm. What does it do to our hearts? To witness, to hear, to experience vicariously through the images, the words, the dialogue, the emotions we feel about injustices taking place in Palestine. Where do we go from here? How do we deal with the overwhelm so as not to become complacent? How do we ensure that we stay the course and not turn away from what we witness on the screen and within our own bodies?

I witnessed a father weeping as he held his son close. His son was recently released from prison in the hostage exchange. His emotions were raw and yet he was aware that thousands of others were still imprisoned and equal amounts of others had been recently arrested during the exchange. Was it then truly freedom for their son?

I heard a mother speak of how she was happy to receive her child released from the Israeli prison, but not so happy because so many had lost their own children to the bombs that rained in Gaza.

We cannot celebrate coming home because others are not coming home. We are not free until all of us are free. Overwhelm. What does it mean to be overwhelmed by what we witness in Palestine? What does it do to our hearts? It means three Palestinian students can be shot while walking together, wearing Arabic scarves called kufiyas, and while speaking.

Arabic, the language of Arabic in Vermont. It means two Indian Muslim students can be stabbed in a restaurant while eating in California. It means a small Palestinian child can be stabbed to death. It means a female doctor can be murdered in a park. It means the war, the terror comes home to America, reminding us that we are truly interconnected.

It means Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-brown and black hatred as witnessed in our communities here. Some even take their hatred to terrorize our communities on its streets.

Overwhelm. The four year old girl across my television screen has become my hero. She survived a missile hitting her home. A newborn baby, just 37 days old, miraculously was rescued from under the rubble after her home was destroyed by Israeli warplanes. She too has become my hero. The overwhelm means that I look to stories of survival to soften and open my heart more as I rejoice and reflect on how both of these children survived under the most horrific circumstances.

They survived, they survived by some miracle, they survived. And so must we all, beloveds, so we can give a voice to the voiceless, so we can live another day to work for the freedom of all, so we can finally say, free at last, free at last.

Thank God, Almighty, we are free at last.