Lessons from The Leftovers: finding meaning in an ISIS-filled world

by Brian on January 1, 2016

in Living Through Terror,Reviews

The LeftoversTwo weeks ago, the HBO TV series The Leftovers completed its stunning second season. With its incessantly bleak tone, and ratings that were not much better, critics and fans called it “the best show on television you’re probably not watching.” But you ought to. Go out and binge watch all 20 episodes right now. Because the fictional world of the Leftovers can tell us a lot about the very real world we inhabit, especially now in the shadow of ever increasing terrorism.

Based on the best selling 2011 book by Tom Perotta, and co-created by Damon Lindelof who masterminded the TV series Lost, the Leftovers presents a contemporary alternate universe where two percent of the world’s population inexplicably disappears at once, an event which is dubbed the Sudden Departure. That sounds a lot like the Christian Rapture, but the show’s conceit is that it never attempts to explain what caused the Departure.

What is clear, though, is that the Departure doesn’t fit into any religious framework we’re familiar with: the 140 million people who vanished were not all “believers” or even good people. The Departure appears to have struck completely at random, with criminals and babies disappearing along with presumably God fearing men and women. Pope Benedict XVI was taken, yes, but so were Condoleezza Rice, Salman Rushdie, Gary Busey and Jennifer Lopez.

This throws the fictional post-Departure world into an existential religious crisis and it’s that which the show wants to explore. The series starts three years after the Departure with humanity suffering from collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where traditional religions break down with new ones taking their place. All of them try to ascribe some meaning to what seems to have become a meaningless world.

Much of the Leftovers focuses on a cult called the Guilty Remnant which does whatever it can – including shocking violence – to prevent people from “forgetting” the Departure and moving on with their lives. Guilty Remnant members dress all in white, do not speak and incessantly chain smoke (because what’s the point, anyone of us could be gone in a moment).

I won’t provide any spoilers here, other than to say while the Leftovers operates on many levels, optimism is not one of them. Which is why it can seem so spookily reminiscent of the non-fictional world we live in, where “meaning” also appears increasingly absent.

The Leftovers had the Sudden Departure; we have the alarming wake-up of global terror. In both cases, the victims are random (well, terror groups target identifiable groups – westerners, Jews, Shi’ites – but usually not specific individuals) and the violence is nearly always unexpected. Two percent of the world’s population is large enough that just about everyone on the Leftovers knows someone affected by the tragedy. That’s not unlike our experience in Israel, too, where no one remains untouched by terror.

The result is a grasping for explanation – any explanation – to take away the pain of not knowing why. In the Leftovers universe, the Guilty Remnant is a kind of stand in for ISIS or Al Qaeda. They have a clear ideology and will do whatever they deem necessary in pursuit of their goals. Meanwhile, the post-Departure masses flail around lost and unclear of where to turn next, jumping from indifference to avoidance to depression.

The Guilty Remnant picks up on that, preying on people who just can’t deal with their lives anymore. In the real world, politicians try to fill the vacuum (witness Donald Trump’s reactionary calls to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.), as does religion, which has always excelled at providing big picture rationales for personal pain.

The son of friends of ours living in the States was visiting a few days after the San Bernardino terror attack. Noam grew up in ultra-Orthodox family; he has six brothers and sisters and a strong belief system. I, on the other hand, was feeling pretty hopeless about the world as we sat down for lunch.

“Suffering and evil does have meaning,” he said to me calmly as I balanced some rice and tofu on my fork. I must have looked quizzical. “It’s there to allow us to be better, to do good in the world, to make a change,” he continued. Noam was expressing the classic Jewish tikun olam point of view, one with which I readily agree. We were just coming at it from different starting points.

Noam’s religious beliefs allow him to perceive hidden purpose in evil – it provides us with the impetus to over-compensate towards the positive. I see that same evil, but for me there is nothing deeper behind it, no religious imperative or God-given backstory. So I’m compelled to come up with my own small tikun olam actions – more often that not a menu of digestible causes, from promoting social justice and gender equality to reducing waste and eating less meat.

“I feel sorry for you,” Noam said, but he meant it compassionately and he quickly corrected himself. “What I meant is, it must be hard for you living that way.”

The truth is, it’s not. I’m satisfied with my makeshift approach to meaning. I don’t need a supernaturally imposed sense of morality to do the right thing, at least when it comes to the small stuff. But terror, well, that’s not small stuff anymore. And that’s when the existential despair sets in. Other than enthusiastically exercising our right to vote for leaders we hope will make the right strategic decisions, we don’t have much direct impact on the politics of terror.

Or maybe we do.

Micah Avni’s father Richard Lakin was killed in the October 13 terror attack on Egged bus number 78 in Jerusalem. Avni, who is the CEO of a publicly traded Israeli commercial finance institution, holds social media responsible for enabling incitement and providing a platform for hate to flourish.

In a New York Times op-ed, Avni argues that “this wave of terrorism is different from anything we’ve seen” and that “the world leaders who [are] having the most impact on the situation in the Middle East right now [aren’t U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and other young entrepreneurs who shape the social media platforms most of us use every day.” Avni calls for social media companies to “become more active in combatting hate” and to “remove blatant incitement without waiting for formal complaints.”

Elsewhere on Facebook, a social media group called “Fight F/Book Anti-Semitism” has close to 7,500 members; its goal is to identify, shame and ultimately force Facebook to shut down pages that incite their followers to violence against Israelis and the Jewish people. Last week they were able to get the “Death to Israel” page removed after months of concerted effort.

I agree with Avni and others fighting anti-Semitism online; they deserve all the support we can give them. But it’s only half the solution. The other is creating a compelling counter message; one that appeals to would-be terrorists, their followers and supporters, and that sanctifies meaning without murder in an irresistible way.

Do I know what that message would be? Maybe something like the Muslim Reform Movement, which was announced on December 4 by a dozen Muslim scholars and activists from around the world. In its preamble the group declares, “We are Muslims who…stand for a respectful, merciful and inclusive interpretation of Islam. We…seek to reclaim the progressive spirit with which Islam was born in the 7th century and fast forward it to the 21st century…we reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice or politicized Islam.”

One of the authors of the Muslim Reform Movement said that the group’s goal is to take the declaration to mosques, Muslim institutions and Muslim leaders throughout the world and to seek their formal endorsement. David Suissa, writing about the initiative in the Jewish Journal, commented that, “Even if it takes 100 years, getting those endorsements is the real war we must win.”

This is how it begins. In the world of the Leftovers, the Guilty Remnant comes off like a cult but might be a religion in training. “Most religions are founded on some supernatural act, but it’s way in the past, ” Leftovers author Tom Perrotta says. But what “if we moved this supernatural event into our world, how would we react to it? Maybe [the Guilty Remnant’s] lifestyle isn’t a full-fledged religion yet, but…once you create that space, then maybe the religion evolves and maybe it survives.”

We are at that juncture today. Can the Muslim Reform Movement mature and catch on as an accepted religious direction? Will the holy devotion to unfiltered free speech on social media be tempered by real world rationality as Micah Avni proposes? Can an alternate message of meaning manifest itself as we teeter on the brink of madness in the Middle East and beyond? And what role can Israel and the Jewish people contribute so that that the world we live in does not become the nihilistic equivalent of the Leftovers?

Cracking that would be the most meaningful tikun olam.

I originally compared the world of The Leftovers and our very real one in The Jerusalem Post

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