Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief

How one responds to grief and loss reveals a lot about one’s character. Especially when it has come as the result of the wrongdoing of others, a very common reaction (largely supported by social opinion) is rage, the desire for revenge, the desire to make others suffer the way you’ve had to. Hence the “victims’ rights” movement, all the Charles Bronson-type revenge movies in pop culture, etc.

A minority of people, though, react in a very different way, sensing that their healing requires not hatred and violence to “get even,” not emulating those who hurt them by “fighting fire with fire,” but going in the opposite direction and trying to add positive energy to the world, even as their victimizers have subtracted it.

The documentary Beyond Belief is the story of two 9-11 widows, two largely conventional white, middle-class women from Boston whose husbands were on one of the planes crashed by the hijackers. They were introduced to each other through mutual acquaintances, and ultimately decided to work through their grief by helping other suffering people.

Specifically, they started an organization to raise money for Afghan widows, women whose husbands had been killed in the various wars of the last several decades in Afghanistan, including the U.S. war.

God bless them, is all I can say. I wish their reaction was the norm.

Though it’s interesting that when someone does step outside the box and not scream for blood when they’re victimized, I notice the response is not uniformly condemnatory. I’m sure they had to deal with their share of people denouncing them for giving aid and comfort to the enemy (though that’s not addressed in this film), but I think actions like theirs strike a chord in folks. The number of people who would react the way they did is small, but then there’s an additional number of people who maybe couldn’t do it themselves, but who respect and appreciate it in others.

They’re shown raising money at public events in the movie, including at some sort of meeting of police officers, and its heartwarming to see how well people respond to their sincerity and benevolence.

The film includes clips from Afghan women on the receiving end of the program (which focuses on avoiding direct handouts of food in favor of providing livestock and education and skills that hopefully give the recipients a better shot at being able to sustain themselves). It also shows the two protagonists eventually journeying to Afghanistan themselves to meet some of the women, which is predictably emotional.

No doubt the Afghan women are careful in what they say (even after being urged to speak openly). Zero of them denounce the United States. Generally they just blame “war” in the abstract for their hardships.

It’s interesting how some of them have little or no grasp of the issues at hand. (They don’t watch a lot of CNN, one gathers.) For example, when asked what they know about 9-11 itself, one young woman, possibly a teenager, admits she’s vague on what actually happened. She says she thinks it has something to do with a plane that ran into bad weather and crashed, and “two or three people” were killed.

One good thing about the film is that it reveals how horribly oppressive Afghan society still is toward women, that it’s not just a Taliban thing, but the norm for many of the “good guys” the U.S. is allied with as well to maintain the ugliest of cultural norms. (Women must be covered from head to toe with burqas and accompanied by a male relative if they leave the house; if a widow remarries she loses her children to her first husband’s family, etc.) The Soviet-allied Afghan regime—though rotten in numerous respects, as Soviet-allied regimes tended to be—was considerably more progressive in this regard.

I have the sense this film could have been more tightly edited, could have been considerably shorter. The story as a whole touched me, but watching the film, my level of interest varied. There were stretches that were a little slow and a little questionable in terms of which details they focused on, and so were just OK, punctuated by truly moving scenes where emotionally deeper issues were addressed. For instance, the Boston women talking about adjusting to life as widows, and having to decide what and how much to tell their kids. Or some of the really, really sad stories from the Afghan widows. Like the woman who—somehow while still able to smile—tells the women from Boston how she had to bury her children after they starved to death. “I wish you could have come sooner to help us,” she says.

One of the things I liked most is how ordinary and unpretentious the two Boston widows are. They aren’t geniuses, they aren’t extraordinarily knowledgeable about Afghanistan and world affairs, they aren’t politically sophisticated, they aren’t unusually articulate, they aren’t morally saintly across the board. There are plenty of things in the movie that cynics could scoff at, plenty of times they maybe ask a naïve question, or show a lack of awareness of something, or make some trite comment about the world or about their motivation, but the thing is it’s real.

They’re just real people trying to do good. I suppose they shouldn’t be surprised to discover that the Afghan women miss their husbands and hurt for their suffering children; it shouldn’t bring tears to their eyes as some sort of revelation that there’s a universality to motherhood and certain human experiences. But whether they should have known it or not, they were motivated enough to fly to Afghanistan to find out, and to try to help.

I don’t want to leave things to experts and saints. I want regular people like this to be good in the ways that are open to regular people.

I love that they are honest enough to admit—albeit laughingly—that a big factor in why they hurt over their loss of their husbands is the lack of sex. “It’s great that I get such emotional support from my friends and family, but what I’m not getting is sex!”

They’re just normal people, muddling through horrible stuff as best they can, and somehow responding to their hurt by throwing themselves into helping others. If only we could bottle that.

God bless them.

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