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The Tragedy of Our Lady and the Controversy of Giving a Shit

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron

Fire destroys Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris, France

The first time I visited Notre Dame de Paris the Internet did not exist. Forget about social media. My subconscious expectation was an assemblage of small images I had seen in Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (a book recommended by my high school history teacher) and a handful of art history textbooks. I was eighteen when I stepped out of a side street with my backpack on Ile-de-la-Cite and into the square in front of the cathedral. My first thought was that it was smaller than I had expected. Then, I thought, I am actually here.

The first image I saw of the spire aflame—smoke billowing into the Parisian sky—jumped at me from the screen of my Smartphone. I was stunned, assaulted by a number of different emotions, but mostly with a profound sense of loss. Like all grand monuments, images of Notre Dame have become ubiquitous in the digital age. But rather than diminish her grandeur, the proliferation of these images has only solidified her in our collective imaginations in a way that could not have existed a generation ago.

Notre Dame is not just something that we know exists; she is something that we know. In the way that we are constantly assured of the sun’s space in our sky, or the transit of the moon, we believed that we lived in a world that included Notre Dame de Paris. Even if we do not pass her on our way to work or eat Berthillon’s ice cream next to her on the banks of the Seine on Sundays.

Fire destroys Notre Dame de Paris
Street View of Notre Dame de Paris

The response to this tragedy has been swift and unconditional. “We will rebuild,” declared President Macron before the flames were extinguished. Several of the world’s billions have pledged miraculous sums. So has the City of Paris and all levels of government. These assertions have been met with celebration and relief, but also, and most recently, with anger and with scorn.

How can such sums of money be found with so little discussion or thought, while more than 8 million French citizens live in poverty? Why do we cry for a building, when we do not cry for daily loss of children around the world to preventable diseases like tuberculosis and malaria? How can we justify saving a shell of stone at the same time that we allow life-saving tracts of rainforest to be cleared for cattle and for industry? Where are our priorities?

I will admit to having these thoughts, and more, in the days that followed. Emotions run high in the wake of tragedy. But I feel differently now.

If a woman walks abused animals for two hours on Fridays, and another serves up soup at the local mission three hours a week, is one of these people better than the other? Is walking disadvantaged dogs less important than feeding the hungry? What if the soup server is retired, and has hours of free time on her hands, while the dog walker is fully employed with a family? Is the dog-walker then more generous with her time? And who gets to judge?

Hunger, disease, and environmental degradation are the scourges of our world, and we must do more for each of them. It cannot be otherwise argued. But I do not think that the desire—and perhaps the necessity—to rebuild Notre Dame de Paris has no value. And maybe the detractors and the naysayers need only to look at this moment from a different perspective.

The response to the burning of Notre Dame demonstrates that we—as a species—still possess a collective consciousness (and maybe even a collective conscience). In this increasingly wired and disconnected world, we are still able to come together after tragedy and act as one mind—as we did after the 2004 Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. This is an uplifting thought. If we can agree on nothing else, surely, we can agree on this. This ability to cooperate demonstrates humanity’s continued capacity to respond to emergency. And this should give us hope that one day we might also come together in response to the myriad “mundane” tragedies we are faced with every day.

In a world where many people do nothing, we should never denigrate those who give a shit and are willing to do something about it. There are enough causes for everyone. Notre Dame may not be my own number one cause, but I am happy to know someone is looking after it.

So rebuild Notre Dame. Tick that box. And then ask, “What’s next?”

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