What East County should ask after the Paris fire

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Courtesy Photo.

If anyone in the world understands the pain Paris is feeling this week, it is the population of Southern California – we are no strangers to the devastation of fire.

Even in the last year, East County has felt the effects of unchecked flames. The sense of loss, of helplessness, is one our neighbors across the pond are feeling right now. How much smaller that makes the world seem.

Reactions to the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris has sparked reactions of all kinds across the world and the net for days now. The shock of losing such a historical treasure – even if most of us honestly only know it from Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” – has sent ripples of distress throughout the world. How could 800 years collapse and turn to ashes in less than half an hour? After the spire fell, the flames burned on for hours as if taunting those who watched and waited – what else could that fire steal from us?

As it turned out, the carnage was not as bad as it could have been. At least two of the Rose Windows were spared completely, and the stone structure and two towers are also still standing. What’s more, several of the statues had just been removed for refurbishing. They are safe and sound.

Still, the reminder that even man’s greatest accomplishments are not impervious to decay and destruction is unsettling.

Notre-Dame is an icon. Completed in the 13th century after more than 100 years of construction, that cathedral has seen plagues, revolutions, war, coronations, martyrdom, festivals and fictional and historical fame. Parisians are calling it the cornerstone of their city and their culture. Political and social commentators in the West are claiming it as a symbol of Western civilization and ideology. Historians are saluting it as the pinnacle of architectural advancement and artistic beauty. And, of course, the internet has come out in full support of the gargoyles.

So much identity in one building.

Another unsettling trend on the internet is the unkind, yet unsurprising call-outs made to those who have been posting their own pictures of Paris. A number of my friends have put up their photos beneath the grand cathedral, signing them with well-wishes for the French people.

“Notre Dame survived the French Revolution and WWI & WWII,” wrote a Facebook user beneath his photos in a tone of confident hope. “It still survives and will be rebuilt.”

But not everyone took kindly to the Paris collages.

“Congratulations to everyone who is taking advantage of a sad event to remind us that u have Been To Paris” Tweeted @jamieloftusHELP.

Even more people are criticizing efforts of those trying to raise money to rebuild this historical cornerstone, comparing it to the burned black churches in the South.

While I am all for raising money for any churches that have suffered damage, and I am a firm believer in not social media showboating one’s travels, I believe these are both examples of the internet – no, let’s be honest, of people – choosing to find the negative in others.

When I look at the money being raised for Notre-Dame, I see a world coming together to reunite and rebuild – something we don’t do enough of.

When I see pictures of our East County residents in front of that beautiful cathedral, I see something special and unique to humankind: empathy. It is their way of saying, “I was here, too. I saw the beauty, so I can feel this loss, and I share it with you. Let us carry it together.”

In a world where we so quickly shut ourselves off to the struggles of people outside our immediate circles, this attempt to join the communal grieving over the loss of Notre-Dame is encouraging.

Hopefully, the reconstruction will be smooth and the completion with be quick. But as Paris begins the introspective process of rebuilding, perhaps we can do the same.

What is East County’s Notre-Dame? What legacy are we leaving behind – perhaps not to the world, but at least to the community? When our own wildfires threaten our borders, what do we think to protect?

Obviously, our homes and our families come first – the people of this community are, of course, its shining gem, like the brilliant Rose Windows. But what is the steeple? What is the spire that can be seen from a great distance, so that people can’t point and say, “there is something beautiful?”

The French spent 100 years building Notre-Dame, and countless centuries keeping it up. It is a labor of love.

So if we must labor, let us do the same. Let us build grandly in this community, and may that edifice – whatever it is – endure the flames of time.