| This is the 296th story of Our Life Logs |
I am a doubter, a pessimist by nature, who can drain any half-full glass in a single gulp or scrub any silver lining out of existence quicker than it took to form. I don’t do rainbows or unicorns and am fairly certain Murphy’s Law was written exclusively for me so I can bring balance to the universe by popping those invisible clouds of inspiration hovering atop the heads of idealists.
For these reasons, I used to paint with broad strokes based on my own cultural prejudices. I used to be able to look at a crowd and say, “These are the bad people, and those are the good people.” Yet, as I’ve traveled this planet and experienced heartbreak and triumph in languages I don’t even speak, one thing I’ve learned is that people do not fit into nice and tidy little boxes.
Especially in Northern Ireland. Especially in the late 1990s.
But first, a little background on both me and this amazingly-wonderful, brutally-honest, hodgepodge of a nation that sits within a kingdom in a corner of an island. There have been volumes written about Irish/British relations chronicling the history of Protestant colonization on the largely Catholic island. Annexation and issues of nationalism and political unrest made Northern Ireland one of the most violent places on the planet in a period referred to as The Troubles which are loosely dated about 1968 to 1998.
During that time, more than 3,000 men, women, and children lost their lives in bitter sectarian fighting as an Irish minority and their British counterparts shot, bombed, bartered, legislated, and terrified each other in order to lay a stake in the country’s future by joining paramilitary groups. Many of the Irish living in Northern Ireland wanted the nation to be reunited with the whole of Ireland, while most British living there wanted to remain in the United Kingdom. So, tensions were running hot the first time I arrived in 1999.
My own history is not so extensive.
I was born in West Virginia in the US in 1975 and moved to Montana when I was 20. By the time I arrived in Northern Ireland, I was a newly married kid aged all of 24 years, who had been working for an international non-profit organization for about three years. I was your typical Gen X slacker raised on a steady diet of cynicism, Pearl Jam, and failed Reaganomics.
I had studied up on Northern Ireland, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. This trip looked great on a resume and would be a great conversation starter at parties. I had it all figured out—my wife and I would lead an international team of 12 people to run a coffee shop just outside Belfast with the intent to foster dialogue between the Irish-Catholic and British-Protestant teenagers. We hoped that if the youth found common ground, it would keep them from joining the local paramilitaries and eventually killing each other. I imagined we would arrive and the whole town would throw a parade for us because we were peace envoys there to ween their wee youth off of violence and tomfoolery of all sorts.
The shop was on the second floor of a back-alley bakery. It smelled like cigarettes and mud which is a weird combination until you encounter it so often that it becomes your baseline for all other olfactory sensations. It had a bar that only served soda and milkshakes because the last thing we needed was an alcohol-infused environment.
Our team was living in a rented (and we later found out, condemned) house just a block from the coffee shop, so I experienced the rain almost every day when I walked to work. The thing about Irish weather is that it’s always wet. It’s the kind of dampness that seeps into everything and adds to the collective downtrodden psyche. I remember the sky being different shades of white which I previously didn’t think existed.
Now, keep in mind that this was during the height of the television show Friends, and we thought any problem in the world could be whisked away in a coffee shop as long as we could channel the quick wit of Chandler, introspection of Ross, vulnerability of Joey, and quirkiness of Phoebe. I intentionally leave out Monica and Rachel for personal reasons because I’m not sure they add much to Anglo-Irish discourse. Anyway…we were going to sweep in and over-caffeinate our way to a Nobel Peace Prize. Easy peasy.
This was the stuff Lifetime movies were made of and the only issue was who was going to play me when it aired—until…
“Fuck yew, ahn yew kin take yer patronizin’ ass ahn go the fuck bahk home.”
The Belfast brogue is thick and takes some getting used to, but the sentiment was unmistakable. The kids in this town were used to people breezing in and out of their lives, using them as Petri dishes in some sort of sociopolitical experiment. To them, I was just another link in a long rusty chain of self-aggrandizement.
My initial few bonding attempts had failed miserably and I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I knew a lot about Northern Ireland.
Most of the kids who frequented the shop were between 14 and 19 years old, so I wasn’t a whole lot older than some of them. I tried fitting in by playing football (which was soccer to me) or talking about music. I suppose I had vastly overvalued what it meant to be an American, for there was practically no novelty to my existence in their eyes. I could not reach these kids. I was not making a difference. I was not inspiring them to see the good in each other, nor was I affecting any real change.
I began to spiral a little. My pessimistic tendencies began ebbing their way to the surface. I was smack dab in the middle of a culture raised on mistrust and bred for conflict. I stopped trying to be all buddy-buddy, thinking that someone might shoot me if I dared ask one more kid what kind of music they liked.
I was not the savior I thought I could be.
There were two weeks left in our stay when the mass school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, happened. Because this was 1999 and the Internet was almost incomparable to what we have today, the news was slow and patchy making its way to us. I remember being shocked and saddened for a few quiet moments. I couldn’t believe that kind of violence had happened—at least, not in the US, not at a major university, not so close to home.
But, being the master compartmentalizer that I was, I tucked it away and went to work. I remember that it didn’t rain that day.
The rest of the day was uneventful and typical. Every attempt I made to connect with and save the kids in the shop was rebuffed and ignored. As closing time approached, I began wiping the bar while some of the other volunteers vacuumed and cleaned out ashtrays. We just wanted to get home so we could get some sleep before repeating the whole cycle again the next day.
The bell above the door jingled, startling me as a kid unassumingly strode in and planted himself at one of the clean tables, which ticked me off. I was not going to start up the milkshake machine and dirty a whole sink full of dishes just because Timmy was stoned and had the munchies. My body language did the speaking for me.
“Yews don’ ghet it,” he countered.
“Sure we’s do. It’s late and you’re hungry.”
“Soory ’bout wha happened in yer school regardin’ tha shootin’.”
“Yeah, I guess we have something in common, now.”
I couldn’t believe I just said that as the words streamed from my mouth. Any small amount of credibility I had was now gone. In my head, I heard Chandler ask if I could be any more insensitive. I immediately apologized and the young man stopped me before I could finish.
“Don’t. That’s tha ferst honest thing yew said since yew been here.”
And it hit me. It hit me hard. Suffering was part of the human condition and no one culture cornered the market on it.
As he kept talking, I listened—maybe for the first time—about his hope for the future of Northern Ireland that would transcend politics and national identities. This young man had lost his brother to one of the paramilitary groups that dotted the landscape like thistles in a field. He had been collateral damage in a bombing two years prior.
But I didn’t hear a treatise on retribution or vengeance. Nothing about retaliation. Instead, he spoke calmly and in measured tones, recalling the emptiness he felt. He approached a crux in his road. At the funeral service, with all eyes on him, he walked to the casket and attached a simple three-worded note for everyone to read. It said: I forgive you.
And he made a decision to revolt against hate; to protest the accepted norm. He knew the only way to make a difference in his society was to stand out by standing for love.
These kids didn’t need saving. I did.
My entire time in Northern Ireland, I had reduced everyone and everything into paper-thin characterizations that suited my fancy. I wasn’t relating to anyone because I wasn’t allowing anyone to penetrate my bastardized stereotypes.
It wasn’t until this kid shared his experience with me that I realized that people do not fit into nice and tidy little boxes. This kid had every reason to hate but chose to love.
This world requires methodic, intentional love that is not fettered exclusively to emotion. Yeah, turning the other cheek hurts because you might be struck again, but if we all did this, people would grow tired of slapping.
This is the story of Curt Lamm
In his early 20s, Curt visited Northern Ireland with an international non-profit convinced that he’d be able to help Irish and British teenagers move to dialogue instead of violence in the midst of political turmoil happening within the country. He went in with prejudice, thinking he knew the people living here, but it wasn’t until he met one kid who chose love despite having every reason to be violent that he realized these kids weren’t the ones in need of change. Curt spent the better part of 1996-2010 working with various non-profits with his wife. They have traveled to almost 30 different countries. Curt has specifically led international teams for about eight years to various places, including ground zero in New York City a few months after 9/11. Curt and his wife have two amazing kids in high school.
Things are much better today in Northern Ireland because the children and grandchildren of The Troubles have sought more peaceful means to voice their respective positions. Over the years as peace initiatives began working, the paramilitaries evolved into (more or less) various forms of organized crime focusing on drugs, racketeering, and prostitution. So, yeah…tensions are much lighter, but you can still find trouble if you go looking for it. The coffee shop Curt started remains open, hosted by other teams. He has visited it twice since he left.
This story first touched our hearts on March 21, 2019.