Lessons from the Bangkok bombing: finding hope in the balance

Editor’s note: On Aug. 17, at least 20 people were killed and more than 120 injured in a bombing at Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand. Gregory James Supernovich of Cornwall, who is living and working in Bangkok for a year, was a patient at Chulalongkorn Hospital, a mile away from the shrine, at the time of the blast. He wrote the following essay about his experience.
It is a terrible time now in Bangkok with the fear and confusion from the bombing at the Erawan Shrine. So much death and injury to so many innocent lives. All of our hearts bleed for the suffering. We feel disbelief and shock. How can others do such horrible things to us?
I’ve been watching the events unfold from my room at Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok, where I’m a patient being treated for cancer, and where I’ve just had major surgery. I’ve been reading about the bombing on the Internet, hearing about what happened from my friends, and knowing in a vague manner that some 20 injured from the bombing are being treated here. I’m thinking that my impressions from my hospital stay may have something useful to say about these tragic events.
A hospital is a very isolating place for patients because while we are in the hospital we must focus all our strength and energy to heal and return to health and life. For patients, the struggle to survive consumes them, as it should, for it is only human to fear pain and suffering, and to seek a normal functioning body. Here the world is one of doctors, nurses, blue hospital gowns, surgical tools, needles, punctures, jabs, oxygen, tubes, bruises and incisions. Over days, treatment seems maddening.
The situation here can be very dire. Two elderly men in my room have advanced stages of cancer with deep surgical wounds because the cancer has spread throughout their bodies, and they probably won’t survive. One man has gone to the northeast Thailand to a Buddhist monastery to try to die peacefully with the help of pain medications, herbs and a caregiving monk. A young boy of maybe 10 is here with his mother and father, and I see him touch the IV needle in his wrist in disbelief. I pray he will be well. In each room families and friends visit patients each day out of great concern and caring. There is a heavy veil that falls over a hospital despite the best intentions, support and smiles of hospital staff. A nurse has told me that sometimes a patient tries to escape to run from the pain and disease. And still, invariably, all of us patients try to escape and cope somehow — through meditation, pain medications, religious beliefs, numbness and delusion.
Outside the gate of the hospital there seems to be a happy, modern world of people who have energy and purpose, and who are lucky to have health, family, friends, careers, love and good food. The patient envies the general goodness of the outside world. Yet, at this moment, I also feel guilty about my envy, self-pity and selfish concerns when Bangkok and its people are suffering very much now.
One of the things that I see clearly in the present moment is that just as my life here in the hospital is vulnerable and fragile, so is life in the great city of Bangkok, especially with this horrific bombing. I’m an older American teaching English at the Faculty of Public Health at Burapha University in Chonburi. One of the things I’ve been learning in my year here is an Eastern view of the balance in life — good and bad, weak and strong, life and death, night and day, love and hate — and that it is often natural for the opposites to inform each other, to co-exist together somehow.
Let me state emphatically that I’m NOT justifying the actions of the terrorists, that I’m NOT saying they fit into some “moral” philosophy of balance. Rather, I’m thinking how modern life in the hospital and the busy outside world tends to persist between a state of vulnerability and stability. We can’t escape it.
I’m thinking too of the terrorists’ intentions — that they want to strike fear into all civilians, to create insanity. A great anger and brutality seems to drive them to such actions. We suffer the consequences, but we must not let them rob us of our right to liberty and happiness. The path they’ve chosen is hellish. Their road is not the way of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, or the teachings of the other great religions in the world. They pretend to themselves that they are heroes and warriors, but they are not.
An enlightened hero will fight peacefully for change and justice, and as humans it is our right to do so at times. The righteous warrior will practice non-violence like Mahatma Gandhi of India, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Martin Luther King of America. Their way necessitates a more difficult path than violence. They must be patient for decades, and they will suffer terribly for their compassion. Yet, they must not falter in their goals, which are to morally humiliate their opponents into moving towards a more just society. They feel love and caring for the people, and don’t wish to harm others.
On the other hand, the terrorist is obsessed with fire and revenge, and they act out in such a way that they become just as brutal as the “cruel” enemy that they say they want to overthrow. They aren’t honorable. They kill and maim, and then run and hide in a cowardly way. I can’t imagine that they would be taught by the likes of me. They would dismiss me as irrelevant and weak.
Back in my world of suffering in the hospital, I try to seek out even a faint sanctuary of peace and life. My red-tile, old, two-story hospital building is nestled between the newer hospital skyscrapers, and in that space there is a small rooftop garden with benches and many plants (bamboo, ferns, water lilies, and pink-red-white flowering shrubs). A wild, brown, black and white-striped cat visits there with her two kittens. They rise up together to drink water from a large planter with lilies and small fish.
The mother guardedly watches for danger for her kittens. She licks them. Someone puts out a bowl of cat food for them. When the cats are gone, the pigeons from the red-tile roofs come cautiously to eat some of the cat food, for they too come for life and nourishment.
East towards Lumphini Park there is a slit of open space between the hospital skyscrapers. There in the park a large water hose in the sunlight splashes the lush green trees and plants. A glimpse of the sky train flashes by on the overhead tracks. Buses, taxies, motorbikes, and many pedestrians scurry along the street. There is a woman with a yellow umbrella, a worker in a brown uniform with a cart of boxes, and a nurse in a white uniform with a rolling file cabinet.
As I sit at my bedside this week, I see that I’m isolated from the bustle and stress of the modern world, yet I find some encouragement in the way that nature and humans always push relentlessly to life and hope. Such is their inherent character.
So too, I believe that Bangkok’s character, despite this great tragedy, will remain strong, and that its very nature will invariably march forward to life, and not death. Like a fortunate patient, Bangkok and Thailand will recover and heal. I, as a humble American and teacher, offer my best hope and wishes for a secure and safe future for all Thais and their wonderful land and culture.
Gregory James Supernovich, a resident of Cornwall, is an English teacher and editor at the Faculty of Public Health, Burapha University, Chonburi, Thailand. He is on leave from Castleton State College.

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