In defiance of Cynicism

A couple of weeks ago, I had a skype conversation with the director and cast of Sarajevo's Child, a play based on my book  which was about to premiere at the PortFringe Theater Festival in Portland, Maine. Just before the call, I got the same feeling I always get before sharing my story. It is a feeling of excitement at the opportunity to impart something valuable by sharing my war experiences and lessons I've gleaned over the years. I was glad to discover that the small cast of actors seemed excited to ask questions and hear my stories in greater detail. A day later, the director wrote to thank me for taking the time to speak with the cast saying that I left them "excited, inspired and with a little dose of reality" and that meeting me "moved them in a way that they will remember forever." He also noted that what he found most striking about me was my "lack of cynicism" despite the ordeal I had suffered. 

I thought about his comment and decided that the question "Why aren't I cynical? " warranted some reflection. As a lover of words and their etymologies I looked up "cynical" in the dictionary. The word "cynic" has a very interesting history and I invite you to look it up, but for the purpose of this post it's sufficient to say it comes from a Greek word kynikos which literally means  "currish" or "dog-like."  By definition, to be cynical is to be distrustful of the sincerity in other people's motives and to have a general "low opinion of humanity." 

Looking back, it is absolutely true that bearing witness to such blatant crimes of humanity could have resulted in a cynical or pessimistic view of humanity. In fact, I would be insincere if I didn't confess that during the war I sometimes plunged into excruciating periods of emotional quicksand where even at a ripe old age of 14, I believed that any fight or resistance was laughably futile. At times I felt that I, alongside every other citizen in Sarajevo, was a prisoner sentenced to imminent extermination and that it was only a matter of time when my number would be called up. 

I wrote in my Diary because I found relief and a sense of escape in recording my feelings. Still, there were times when even writing seemed pointless because I felt less like a diarist and more like a pathetic bookkeeper updating the daily ledger of death tolls and senseless tragedies. The truth is I was no stranger to pessimism and hopelessness, but I always found my way out. I credit this to the fact that I was surrounded by family, neighbors and citizens who struggled in the same way, but who showed incredible strength, resourcefulness and resilience in the face of adversity. In other words, I had plenty of role models after whom I fashioned my adolescent self. It was despite or perhaps because of the overwhelming darkness around us that we all looked within and dug deep in search of grit and grace. Ultimately, what we found was that the human spirit was our most powerful weapon. 

Today, as I read about the enormous human suffering of more than 60 million refugees around the world, I again find myself wrestling with immobilizing sadness and discouragement. Faced with such overwhelming statistics I question my own contributions for a more peaceful and just world. Doubt creeps in and I ask myself: "Am I doing my part?" "Is my contribution too paltry?" But just as I did some two decades ago, I somehow manage to find my way out of despair. I've learned early on that regardless of the complexity of the problems we face, nothing positive or productive can come from stewing in cynicism or hopelessness.

I remember when I first came to America I wasn't sure what kind of response I'd elicit from the people I'd meet there. Would they have compassion? Would they be friendly? One of my silent fears was that the students at my new high school would have trouble relating to me, connecting with me. I already felt isolated due to the fact that I was a child refugee still shell shocked by my recent experience. I also didn't speak English very well and I didn't have cool clothes and gadgets like my fellow students. On top of everything, there was this intangible yet somehow palpable sense of emotional heaviness that walked alongside me through the school hallways. Sometimes, I could feel the glances and hear the whispers by the lockers. What I didn't realize, and what ended up being one of the most encouraging lessons in humanity and compassion was that those glances weren't rooted in malevolence, but in genuine concern for my well-being and above all, genuine interest in my story. And those whispers weren't words of derision or disapproval but rather a slew of well-meaning, insightful questions. Buoyed by this realization, I began to share stories and offer answers to their questions in spite of my broken English and my obvious emotional rawness. Within a month, all of the students of Anderson High joined me in organizing a winter-clothing drive for families in Bosnia who were facing a long, harsh winter. 

Since my skype call with the cast and the director of Sarajevo's Child the young actors had 3 successful performances. The director sent me several touching pictures taken during the performance. I've read comments by audience members who attest to the powerful performance that "elicited fear, joy and above all..hope" and who urge that "this production should be seen by middle and high school students everywhere." It is indescribably moving and encouraging for me as an author and war survivor to know that these actors who have the good fortune of being strangers to war and conflict possess an earnest desire to portray not only my story, but in many ways the stories of millions of war children today.

This is another reason why I'm not cynical. Because for all the darkness and ugliness I've witnessed in my life, I've seen far more kindness and beauty. During the war, I saw power and resilience in my mother who risked her life every day to keep her job; I saw selflessness and courage in my father who stood in endless lines for bread and water as mortar shells rattled our neighborhood; I saw love and sacrifice in my brother's worn out hands as he returned from scrubbing the kitchen at the UN base where he worked in order to bring us food. 

In the two decades I've been living in North America, I've been fortunate to draw encouragement from readers and audiences who learn about my story and who feel compassion and often urgency to act for the betterment of their society. It is a beautiful synergy that takes place when my unique, but in many ways universal experience of human survival causes people to connect and see each other more for our striking similarities than for our differences. In these days of terrifying headlines and staggering statistics it is these connections that banish cynicism and offer hope and purpose.