Letters from Esther #51: Reading & Writing in a Time of War

By Esther Perel & Mary Alice Miller

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Shall We Begin?

When I am busy, the thing I miss most is reading. Over the last few years, there have been times when I’ve had to stop myself and realize: I’ve been reading scores of headlines, hundreds of posts, but I have a backlog of unfinished articles and books. 

Taking in snippets of current events this way has a corrosive effect on the mind. The inundation of clipped information without context is overwhelming. The avalanche of epithets leaves you emotionally spinning. You think you’re in the loop; you know what’s going on; you’re up-to-date. But you begin to realize: you’re not actually processing the information. And that information—particularly the kind that is shocking and soul-crushing—doesn’t leave your system as quickly as it entered in the form of headlines, tweets, and memes. 

The information sits in your body: a rock on your heart, a pit in your stomach. It scratches at your insides. We are living through an era in which we’ve been convinced that the way to metabolize such dizzying informational and emotional overload is to take a position and make a post online. We don’t know how much it’s helping those most in need. We do know it’s not helping us process the confounding pain of our world and it seems to be further alienating us from each other. 

So many people are using their platforms, however big or small, to comment on the war in Israel and Gaza in the best way they know how. I am trying to do my best, too, alongside other efforts. I’m not sure I’m succeeding. I have to remind myself that social media wasn’t built for navigating intractable conflicts. It wasn’t built for long conversations of compassion and nuance. 

It feels virtually impossible to hold more than one truth, but it’s what I feel compelled to do. I’ve received many positive responses that confirm I am helping. But I have also received condemnation from people on all sides (and, yes, there are far more than two sides). Last week, I got two nearly identical messages, from people with opposing views: “Shame on you. I’m sure your holocaust survivor parents are ashamed.” It seems they found one thing they could agree on: to “unfollow” me. Honestly, I felt where each of them were coming from and the pain that was screaming behind the rage. 

This conflict is close to home for me in many ways as I know it is for many of you. We are all trying to process this on a multiplicity of vectors. There’s the visceral: the grief, the loss, the rage, the violence, the deaths, the parents, the children, the horror, the videos. There’s the global proliferation of both Antisemitism and Islamophobia. And there’s the relational: the how could yous and the how could you nots. 

Sure, there are acquaintances and strangers unfollowing each other on social media, but there are also decades-long friendships falling apart. Families who will be grieving at the holidays may also find themselves fighting for their point of view. Is there a single person who doesn’t feel misunderstood at this moment? 

We are not meant to process conflict and trauma this way: in short bursts, in echo chambers, in the black holes of collapsed nuance. And so I must return to what I know will help me…and what will help me help others: Reading. 

Yes, I am reading the long articles of people who can help me orient myself. But more so, I am reading letters. with friends, family members, and strangers of all backgrounds. I’ve been reaching out to Israeli and Jewish friends from around the globe, Palestinian and Arab friends, and more. Their responses and our continued correspondence has been the most important reading I’ve done all year. In writing, on the phone, and during long walks, we are processing this together. But it’s the letters, in particular—just like this one—that give us space to hear and be heard. Despite all that is splitting us, we are trying to really see each other and connect through our humanity. We are trying to root ourselves in our relationships.

The reality of our situations is very different. Nonetheless, we talk about grief and how our feelings and opinions aren’t binary. We talk about trauma, crimes against humanity, the right to safety and dignity, and the urgent need for bilateral peace efforts. We talk about our loved ones, friends of friends, and strangers who are experiencing the hell of war on the ground—and how we are trying to help them. We are not turning away from this conflict, we are turning toward each other. As Peter Levine says, “Trauma is what we hold inside in the absence of an empathic witness.”

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • Try reaching out to someone in your life whom you know is close to this conflict, and not just those in your own tribe.
  • You don’t need to make a point. Make a difference.
  • Keep it general but heartfelt.
  • “My friend, I have been thinking about you and wanted to affirm our connection. I’m checking in with you because this is close to you. There is so much to say about this war but, right now, I just want you to know that our friendship is important to me. If you ever want to correspond more about what is happening or how it is affecting your life, I am here.” 
  • Release yourself of the expectation to get anything in return. This is a difficult time for so many and we are all processing it in our own way. 
  • What matters is that you show you care.

More From Esther

I often hear about situations in which one person, unable to air their grievances, has let a minor crack in a relationship metastasize into a web of fractures. The other person, inevitably, seems to be unaware of the impact of their behavior. Both are left flummoxed at how a misunderstanding or disagreement became a full-blown breakup or breakdown. Have you ever experienced this? Read on.

‍Modern romance doesn’t pay much attention to “values clarification” until there is a “values crisis.” But it doesn’t mean we have to stay in crisis mode. My advice to couples at a crossroads over issues rooted in values is this: step away from the content of the argument for a moment and consider the form. 

  • “Six Essential Practices to Improve Listening Skills in Relationships”/ an article

Whether we are sharing a story, a grievance, a need, a want, or even a desire, nothing makes us feel more deeply connected than when we are engaged in a healthy balance of thoughtful speaking and hardcore listening. 

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

I’m Supporting: 

  • Sulha Peace Project was established in the year 2000 in the midst of the Second Intifada with the goal of creating eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart encounters between Palestinians and Israelis. We, at “Sulha Peace Project,” believe in the importance of authentic face-to-face meetings as both a condition and a basis for open dialogue and mutual partnership. Conflicts engender erasure of the human faces of the Other. We seek to strengthen humanity and restore the faces of the human beings that live on both sides of the conflict. Our Sulha gatherings focus on training people to listen and feel with our hearts – an ability that is necessary for any future solution to this conflict. We operate in Israel and the West Bank, on both sides of the separation barrier. “Sulha Peace Project” invites all people from all segments of the population to come and participate in our activities.
  • Standing Together is a grassroots movement mobilizing Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in pursuit of peace, equality, and social and climate justice. While the minority who benefit from the status quo of occupation and economic inequality seek to keep us divided, we know that we — the majority — have far more in common than that which sets us apart. When we stand together, we are strong enough to fundamentally alter the existing socio-political reality. The future that we want — peace and independence for Israelis and Palestinians, full equality for all citizens, and true social, economic, and environmental justice — is possible. Because where there is struggle, there is hope.”

I’m Reading: 

I’m Listening To: 

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