You Have to Believe in Something

April 10, 2013 § 8 Comments

chadStephanie Bane, author of  “We Have Peace” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and on sincerity, naiveté, and the importance of faith.

The sincerity of my essay – We Have Peace – embarrasses me.  The unabashed patriotism, the near-total lack of irony, make me seem unsophisticated, a fool.  It’s an essay I wouldn’t like if someone else wrote it.  If someone else wrote it, and I read it one Sunday morning, perusing Brevity over my first cup of coffee, I’d get angry.  I’d spend half the day crafting a terse response about the role of the US in supporting the despots of Africa and the Middle East.  I’d point out that the US stands behind Idriss Déby, the current “president” of Chad, a dictator who seems like a reasonable man only when you compare him to Hissène Habré, the man he replaced.  And that Habré, “Africa’s Pinochet,” now on trial now in Senegal for crimes against humanity, also received support from the US throughout his genocidal reign.

Further, I’d have to mention – if the character limit in the comments section allowed it – that Chadians know this.  We Americans may choose to remain ignorant of the way our tax dollars are spent abroad, but in a country as poor as Chad, the gross military spending that has gone on there for decades stands out.

So the way I’ve portrayed American ideals, and the Chadian response to them in my essay – could suggest to some that I’ve got the critical thinking skills of a first grader, and that my Chadian students were equally naïve.  That was not the case – plenty of my students were politically sophisticated enough to ask the next questions.  Why does the US hoard the peace?  Why the contradiction between your commitment to maintaining peace on your own country, and your role in undermining it, in ours? None of them asked. Chadians are extremely polite hosts; I’m sure that was part of it.  I was a guest, with obviously good intentions. Some Peace Corps volunteers could be mistaken for CIA agents – not me. I was far too hapless, my language skills too poor.

That afternoon with Jimmy Carter has remained vivid in my mind for the almost twenty years since it happened.  It stands out now, in the context of the rest of my thinking, and writing, as singularly positive.  It’s a tone break in the memoir I’m writing about my time in Chad. The rest of the manuscript is dark, because while I was in Chad, a gap opened up – a gap between the world as I believed it to be, and the world as it truly was. I’ve wandered this ravine ever since, unable – unwilling -to commit myself to either side.

So what does this, small, hopeful memory signify? Three years ago I heard Yann Martel speak at the Heinz Lecture Series in Pittsburgh.  He said something that so directly challenged my wandering, my state of being lost, that I wrote it down.   He said “Faith is the engine of humanity.  Not just religious faith: faith in anything. Faith in a loved one, faith in what you’re doing.  You have to believe in something for it to work.”

I no longer believe in God.  I don’t have faith in the decisions of my government, and I certainly don’t believe in the actions of the CIA, an organization that perpetrates one crime after another under the banner of democracy.  But I can – and do – believe in democracy.  I believe in the ideal. I’m ashamed of what my country has done in places like Chad, and the DRC.  But I cry when I vote, because the ideal has been realized in so many ways here at home.  My essay – embarrassing in its sincerity, uncomfortably earnest, is an expression of my faith in democracy – in the power it can have when people claim it for themselves.  If we believe in it, it will work.

Stephanie Bane is an account planner in an ad agency in Pittsburgh, and a recent graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program.  She’s currently working on a manuscript about the time she spent in Chad.  This is her first appearance in a literary journal.

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