Dear ISIS (A Letter Between Human Beings)

Paris attacks

Photo Credit: le calmar via Compfight cc

Dear ISIS,

I know I’m supposed to hate you. I know I’m supposed to be angry. I know I’m supposed to want revenge. I know I’m supposed to demand justice at any cost. I’m supposed to raise my middle finger, tell you I’m not afraid, hunt you down, and blow you up. I know I’m supposed to think you’re the bad guys and we’re the good guys. I know I’m supposed to think you’re evil.

But the truth is, I mostly just think you’re lost.

A bunch of lonely, scared, and powerless little kids, grown up into big kids who are determined to make everyone else feel scared and powerless for a change. A band of brothers, finding belonging by destroying everyone you’ve told yourselves does not belong. The next in a long list of tribes, fighting over the same ancient lands. A people who have decided the best defense is a good offense.

In other words, you’re the human ego, personified.

And the human ego—while formidable and dangerous and violent and corrosive and heartbreaking—is completely predictable. It creates tribes and then wars against every other tribe, because it finds some sense of security and certainty in this way of living and dying. It destroys everything along the road to power, because it believes power will solve all of its problems. And when power doesn’t fix everything, it fights for more. So, you’re going to come for all of us other tribes. And your ego is going to trigger our collective ego.

The script is so formulaic you couldn’t sell it to Hollywood.

We’re going to fight back mercilessly. We’re going to vow to find you and put an end to you. The problem is, though our machines are bigger than yours, your zealotry is bigger than ours. So, there will be no winner. No victor. Just more death. And more ego. Because ego feeds on conflict. Together, we will become co-creators—we will birth another generation of scared and powerless little kids growing into another generation of angry and violent and hateful big kids. Together, we’ll write another chapter in this story of human self-destruction.

So, I’m hoping, this time, we’ll shake up the plot a little.

This time, we’ll choose not to fight back. We’ll forgive you, because you know not what you do—no one who is operating entirely from their ego knows what they’re doing, it’s a kind of blindness, a mindless madness. We’ll look to the heavens in despair and wonder why the power of Love appears to have rendered itself so heartbreakingly powerless. We’ll feel the grief of our losses, not for a day or two, but for a week or two. A month or two. A year or two. However long it takes to sink into the grief of our imploding humanity. We’ll grieve until our grief merges with yours. Until we feel the loss of your people, as if they were our own. Because the truth is, they are. We live on one rock and we are one people.

No matter what our tribal ego tells us.

Of course, the reality is we’re probably not going to do any of that, because though our collective ego is more refined than yours, it’s just as big. And, if I lived in Paris right now, I probably wouldn’t do that, either—my survival instinct would probably kick in, too. I just know, as I look backward at the carnage of human history, doing the same old thing isn’t working. And it bores me to tears.

I just know, it might be worth crying tears of a different kind for a little while.

For a long while.

Because our wisest actions always arise from our weeping, not our warring. If we are willing to make the inward journey into our grief, we might find that place inside of us in which our tears have washed away the illusion of our separateness. We might find that place inside of us from which we are capable of doing even better and more beautiful things than we tend to do.

In grief,

Another Human Being

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Lucy Haley-Hurn

    I understand your sentiments. I wish that not fighting back would work, too. Unfortunately it would only send a message of, “slaughter us, we will not resist”. We must remember that there is a difference between “ego” and “evil”.

  • Ilija Prentovski

    Nice writeup. Now, mail it to the US goverment, because there is no ISIS to read it. It is a bunch of deluded young men, indoctrinated and financed by NATO, to instigate panic as an excuse for more war mongering.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Oh, Kelly. In the aftermath, we all react. Fear, grief, anger, sadness. And our kids catch only flashes— enough to be unsure or worried or fearful —and they need reassurance and routine to return their sense of the world.
    Amazing with all of the uncertainty and awfulness, we all force a sense that we have a best plan that could be followed to lead us all away from the worst path.
    The world certainly needs our best efforts.
    I suspect it’d get by pretty well without our certainty.

  • Nancy

    Upon first reading this article my ego perked with the use of the word “tribes” as insinuating something negative towards a select sect of human beings. But knowing the heart of the author, the professional background of this author I knew my perceived interpretation must be incorrect. So I took the time to search the definition of “tribes” and discovered yes, this is an appropriate use of word for the context of the message. I will share this definition for others … A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leaders. Another example of how we allow ego to influence our thinking. I could have just stopped reading at the 2nd paragraph and missed the context of the article…good job!

  • Conny

    Bored? Really?? I understand what you are trying to convey….but bored? Maybe “sick” or “unimpressed” or?

    “We live on one rock and we are one people.” -> is as true and down to the nuts and bolts of the matter as it gets and that is why I am more shocked and sad and frustrated by the ignorance the actions of these people reflect. And I am saddened and frightened by the ignorance it brings out in others who feel that violence is the only way. But nothing about this makes the word “bored” come to mind.

  • This is the path I pray we are heading towards: “Until we feel the loss of yourpeople, as if they were our own. Because the truth is, they are. We live on one rock and we are one people.” I just returned from Paris and love Paris and yet, it’s not all over the news and in our hearts when the same happens in Beirut or Baghdad. We are still “we” and they are still “they.” The ego lives on. In the powerlessness that I feel, I’m holding out for the capacity to know my own destructive tendencies – for each of us too. And then make room for it, to be “bigger” than it. Thank you for a really important post.

  • Talia Klein Leighton

    Hello Dr. Flanagan,
    This is the first time that I don’t absolutely agree with what you are writing and I think, and it breaks my heart to say it, your fundamental premise is flawed. We may know that the members of ISIS are human beings, with all the ego and human nature that that entails, but the same can not be said for them. They do not believe that you or I or anyone that isn’t a true believer is, in fact, a human being. We are a plague in their view and we can either serve as belongings, like the Yazidi women – who I do not believe would agree with your characterization of the ISIS men as boring – or we must be put down like the rabid animals they believe we are.
    And the part that breaks my heart, is that the millions of Muslims who really do just want to live their lives and raise their children in peace and are able to see the world as a collective of diverse humans, will be drowned out by the zealotry of those who will never be able to see you or I or our children as anything more than slaves or a virus.
    I, like most people, hate war and I have seen first hand what war can do to the human soul. But I also know that we cannot just sit back and let the Yazidi people and the innocents in Syria, Iraq, Iran and the rest of the region suffer and die so that we can keep our hands clean. As Edmund Burke is famous for saying “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

  • AV

    Such a complicated topic. So many points of view. I agree with the premise of your blog post. We are all human beings. If we could just be mindful of our differences and appreciate them and let them go we could live in harmony. But, what do we do when a tribe of people are out to get you because they cannot be mindful and appreciate of differences? I told my husband that the real ‘shock and awe’ would be if everyone where to just pack up their guns and tanks and airplanes and go home and just mind our own business. Put more money into our own country (social programs, intelligence, security). He thinks I have a naive worldview. Maybe I do. But, it has never been tried….so why don’t we?

    • Ismat Dewji Sheriff

      What a great experiment that would be! I think we could all use the space to sort out our own issues!

      • AV

        I have benefited alot from therapy. As part of my naive world view I think it would be great if we could deploy therapists instead of ground troops. (I am kidding here of course….this only exists in my dream world )

  • Shaista Ali

    I wish you could sit with all these world leaders and speak simple sense to them as they decide foreign policy because you’re so right. It’s a never ending cycle and it is all ego and the conquest on power from all sides. ISIS unfortunately is a bunch of powerless kids from countries we tore up that grew up into hateful young adults, they are recruiting those seeking to belong. If war continues, it only continues to breed the same hate. It’s a horrible outcome of the past 15-20 years of war but more war is not going to produce a different outcome. Thank you for your step back and big picture analysis in a time where most cannot see past emotion.

  • Adele

    I have been reading your blog for quite some time. It has helped me a lot dealing with numerous issues… Therapy, marriage, domestic violence, divorce etc. I never commented before but… I am French so this time I thought I would. I don’t hate ISIS, i don’t really hate anyone. I want peace. I want to help the refugees and everybody else in need, if I can. However I am really not sure how we can respond to these attacks without retaliating. I wish we could just find them and have them go to court and go to prison. I think they should be treated like every other criminal. But can we do that? If we don’t retaliate and just sit and pray, are we not going to be attacked again? Today I have no answers, I don’t know what we should do. I am hurt, I am worried for the world we are leaving to our children. And like you, I am crying tears, French tears, American tears…Human tears…

  • Sarah

    I am living in France, my friends are fine, but their friends have lost 7 persons, between son, daughter and friends and we are still counting… States respond as they know: with violence of State, with words of protecting “ours” and being merciless towards “others”. Midias respond as they know: giving sensationalist reports on the horror and panic, with heart warming images of mourning. Politicians use this to raise the flags of their values and stir up fears and ideological speeches… and some citizens mirror that too. But, mostly, I think many of us … ordinary citizens… realize that this horrible pain we feel is just a glimpse of what so many peoples from different countries live on daily basis over years… and it humbles us… and it invites us to more solidarity.
    In one of the worst nights of our lives, we’ve decided to open our doors and homes to strangers, to anyonew ho needed refugee, who didn’t want to be alone. But why only this night?

    A military response? It won’t solve it all. It might even worsen things. We are not dealing with a clearly defined group in one specific geographic place, it’s not a war between two countries. The answer is a challenge to us because it’s on more than the States, or armies, or economies,and no one know which is the clear path. But what has been rising as a collective “ordinary citizens” conscience is that it is within our hands, although we don’t know yet how to offer it properly. It’s on knowing that despite all our differences, we are One and we should respect one another, and connect to one another, it is in forgiving and loving even though we’ve been harmed. Our policies, our armies, our miscomprehension and disrespect of much of what happens in the middle-east and our arrogance has harmed them too – which does not mean that we should respect horrible injustices that go on there, but what are the right ways to help one anoother? We have been certainly missing it.

    We are horrified of the violence we’ve endured and still closing borders to refugees who just want to escape the same horrors or even worse… How to demand humanity and deny it at the same time? Why my toddler is more valuable than theirs? Because she was lucky to have been born in a developped country who is in peace? That’s the lottery of birth, not a ranking on her worth as a human being. I pray for us, but also for them, for the perpetrators of these acts – they need our love and prayers so badly… and for the next terrorists who will still attack here or elsewhere.

    We need less blablabla over the french culture, freedom and strength and focus on finding ways to connect. We have to learn to respect their faith that is so strong that they are able to do such things (even if it’s a misunderstanding and a misguidance of their faiths). Imagine how could they transform positively the world if they comitted in a more constructive way…if they were this engaged to love and life…

    Times are tough but we have this extraordinary chance to be better than we have been so far, do better, become better… Someone wrote in a tree in front of one of the Cafe at rue de Charonne: love will win (I will send you the picture, Dr. Kelly). And Love will. Even if it takes time. But it has to start in our hearts and souls. In our daily actions and we have to stop just being by standers of what is wrong… We are called to rise to the occasion to be the change we need and want…. (and midias are nor reporting on that…) I hope we won’t miss the historical chance to do so…

    Thank you for all your prayers and love. It means a lot to us all.

    Sarah

    • Ismat Dewji Sheriff

      Is this the general feeling in Paris right now Sarah? Or is this the matured few? Do you mind if I share your post with others?

      • Sarah

        I wouldn’t say just a matured few… I think there are plenty of people who feel this way in Paris…there are lot of civil society associations, spiritual groups (from different religions and traditions), most of the students….and that’s what I have been hearing in different neighbourhoods, different public places all around the city and in the forums and lists of discussing in the inetrnet. But of course there are other people who feel otherwise too… You can share it with your friends, if it pleases you, but this was written for this community mostly… (I don’t feel like writting an open letter yet… I don’t feel legitimate enough…ha!)

  • drkellyflanagan

    I want to thank you all for the thoughtful responses that have already come in and, since I’ve already said an awful lot today, I’ll add just a few more words and then be quiet and let you speak.

    First, I’m not a politician, a general, or an anti-terrorism expert. I’m a psychologist, so I wrote this letter to share the one thing I know for sure about people: our wisest actions always arise from our weeping, not our warring. I’m not suggesting we don’t do anything, I’m suggesting there is a place inside of us from which we can do even better and more beautiful things than we tend to do, if we are only willing to make that inward journey before acting. Beyond that, what I know is, I don’t know enough about anything to confidently suggest something more.

    Second, you are the sweetest readership ever. When you disagree with me, you tend to just stay quiet and wait for the next post. I want you to know I have an ego, but my ego can mostly handle disagreement (though my wife might tell you something different), and I want this to be a space where we all feel safe enough to have many opinions, while still remembering we are one. Please continue to feel free to share your struggles with this topic in the comments, even if they are contrary to mine.

    Finally, my boredom is with the repetitiveness of the global situation. At the same time, I feel so heavy with grief today for the individuals caught in the crossfire of generations of violence, it is difficult to write. And I can’t remember the last time I felt unable to write.

    Grace, hope, and peace to each of you and all of us.

  • Beautifully said. Write on…

  • Cherrie Gannon

    Amen.

  • Catherine Martinez

    I concur. But, as history has shown, we will all continue fighting and no one will win (really), and the fight very well could go on for generations. It would be nice if we could eradicate the fight. ISIS won’t be stopped until, like Hitler, it has killed and pillaged and destroyed so many lives. I have a feeling that’s what we’re in for. Instead of being confined to one section of land or a small section (as when Hitler had his regime), it will be worldwide. It’s just horrifically sad. Not only do we have ISIS, we have so many problems bringing humanity down from the Mizzou issues, to the police and (more) racial issues, to the theater/school killing sprees to the immigrants and president’s poor choices. It’s quite scary. I can imagine God slapping his forehead and shaking his head as in when will we learn we can’t fix it and can’t do it by ourselves.

  • Ismat Dewji Sheriff

    I don’t know how to thank you for putting into words my thoughts and feelings at this moment. Sometimes I wonder how I could have birthed children to have to withstand all this egoism.

    The Quran says, (yes I am a Muslim) ‘Human beings, we created you all from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing of you.’ (Chapter of Rooms: verse 13) – there are three lessons to be drawn from this verse according to the commentators of the Quran: 1) All human beings have the same origin and thus all ethnic and racial difference originated from the same source so we are all one in essence. 2) it was natural for human beings to become divided into tribes however there is none that is inherently superior over the other. God created diversity to foster cooperation and understanding. 3) Moral excellence is the only measure against which one should judge one’s ego.

    I await the day our collective consciousness will mature to overcome the forces of the ego. Until then we will hurt and we will be hurt.