Learn From Lebanon
Big Lessons Can Come From Small Places
What can a country halfway around the world teach us about life? The boarders of Lebanon outline a landmass roughly the size of the state of New Jersey. Its population is less than the number of people who work in New York City. Yet, the Lebanese people have lived at the nexus of histories for millennia. The cedars that built Soloman’s Temple were from Lebanon. Some of the largest Roman ruins outside of Rome are in Lebanon, built upon a sacrificial pit dedicated to Baal. The oldest port city in the world, an endpoint of the Silk Road, is believed to be in Lebanon.
The Assyrians, Babylonians, Pheonicians, Romans, and even Napolean III all carved monuments to themselves in the mountain side by the Dog River, commemorating their conquest of the land. The Ottomans also ruled for a time. Beirut is said to have been leveled and raised again at least 4 times over the course of its history. Through it all, the people of Lebanon developed a unique perspective of the world, resilience, and a pride in their own identity.
In the summer of 2020, I hosted a Tap Legacy Summit at the 21st Annual Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival. The virtual gathering brought together tap dancers from around the world, and across generations, to share stories and perspectives about the craft. The conversations were rich, personal, and heartfelt, as we talked about the craft in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matters protests. The challenges facing the tap dance community at large were discussed in thoughtful exchange. As many expressed concerns for rifts and divisions surfacing in the community, the topic of tribalism arose. I presented the recent explosion at the port of Beirut given as an example of the potential end tribalism offers. Who knew Lebanon would be relevant to a conversation about Tap Dance Land?
Microcosmic histories can be amazing areas of learning. Why? Because there is one perspective that never changes even when looking at diverse areas of life like history, art, science, religion, or politics. The one perspective that is applicable in all areas, at any time, is the one that focuses our attention on people. What do histories say about the people? What does art tell us about people? What can science tell us about people? Religion? Politics? Histories can tell us about how people have thought and acted over time. Art can tell us about what they paid attention to, and the stories they thought were most important to share. The questions scientists pursue can tell us something about what kind of knowledge people value. The focus of religion can tell us something about how people think about the world and what they think is good or evil. The political pursuits can say something about how people think about their relationships, especially as they organize. I like to tell my students that everything in Tap Dance Land is about people. The things that happen in a country or to a nation, happen to people. People are a constant throughout human history (oral or written).
There are a few things that undoubtably have changed. The things we can build and the scale of what we think we can achieve have changed dramatically. The mediums through which we engage with each other have expanded. The speed at which we can work and accomplish tasks, including communication, travel, and construction for example, has increased. However, the human heart continues to be a battle ground of good and evil. This internal battleground manifests itself in our actions. When those actions have resources of scale behind them the effects are amplified. The nature of amplified effects might make us think that particular systems are the force behind them. We, to our detriment, can lose sight of the fact that systems are made up of people. Even algorithms and machine learning inherit the personalities of people by way of original intended purposes (something a person had to decide and design for) and the datasets they look at (which are quantifiable measurements of people’s identities, people’s actual actions, or the outcomes of people’s actions).
So, what about Lebanon? What can we learn from such a tiny place? We can learn about what happens when people in leadership ignore the responsibilities they have to the people their actions affect. We can learn what happens to people, when minor internal divisions among groups of people are amplified and agitated by outside groups. We can learn about the various formations of character that happen in light of an 18-year civil war. What kind of person can hold on to hope after experiencing the trauma of war? What kind of person loses hope after going through the same challenges? I’m sure you can see how these questions remain relevant today and may remain relevant in the future.
Lebanon, of course, is not the only place we can learn from. Any gathering of people – a family, group, or community – can teach us something about the way people are. We just have to ask the right questions and be willing to listen. The questions here have more to do with formation than with identity. Asking a Lebanese person about their geographic or religious affiliation brings up years of unspoken stories with it. Asking the same person how they got to where they are – how the experience of war changed them, or their family – will spur a more personal and unveiling conversation. Why they are still in the country is another question that provides insight. If answered generously, we may be gifted with insight into who they are, who they have been, and who they still want to be.
As we attempt to discern our own choices what greater gift is there than a reference point? Along the path of becoming a good person, is there a more generous gift than to have someone else’s journey to glean from? Is there anything more that we can ask for than to bear witness to, and learn from, the joy and pain of others (the outcomes of thoughts and actions)? When those outcomes happen at scale there is great joy and great pain. In the case of great joy, maybe we can lean into the kinds of attitudes that brought it about. In the case of great pain, I hope we do all that we can to prevent such things from happening again.
To that end, if Lebanon can teach us anything, I hope we see it, acknowledge it, and learn from it.