My circuits feel overloaded these days. Incoming information arrives from everywhere all at once, sometimes disguised as news but, all too often we find it’s not really news at all and we are left trying to sort through someone’s opinions or predictions or assessments on important matters. On world-changing events, even.
No matter where the news comes from — the nightly news, a social media post, or the latest issue of my favorite magazine — I’m more inclined to study the photographs than pay attention to the verbiage. Not that pictures are a hundred percent reliable, either, but at least I can get the basic content based on my own instincts and interpretations rather than on what someone else is telling me. I am still of the mind that a picture is worth a thousand words.
In recent weeks, one photograph has stuck in my mind more than any other. It was taken in Mexico City amid a huge pile of rubble that, a day or two before had been a school. Dozens of workmen had paused in their efforts to find survivors and were standing with clenched fists raised — a plea to anyone within sight for “silencio.” Workers had heard a voice or a noise. They were trying to locate its source. Quickly. Before time ran out. Before this earthquake had claimed another life.
The raised or clenched fist is not a new symbol. As a salute, it dates back to Ancient Assyria (2000 BC to 1759 BC) and was used as a symbol of resistance in the face of violence. More recently, the clenched fist has symbolized solidarity and support; as a salute, it is meant to express unity, strength, defiance, or resistance Groups who are associated with its use include the Industrial Workers of the World (1917), the Black Panther Party (1960s), and by feminist groups (1970s). Some contend that modern users of the closed fist such as Winona Ryder and Donald Trump have diminished its symbolic force until it now means nothing.
Perhaps what caught my attention in the videos of the Mexican rescue workers was the use of this power symbol as a way to summon the complete attention of every person within visual range of any one other person. The ‘silent fist,’ as it is being called, commanded complete attention, concentration, and even prayer on the single most crucial point in a mountain of debris. It seemed incongruous and yet perfect — to use a power symbol to evoke gentle, life-saving care.
This time, the raised fist was not representing one point of view or one ideology. The meaning attached to it was simple, urgent, universal. Silence to help save a life. One life at a time. Because all the lives matter. Our humanity matters.
I thought back to my years in primary classrooms where sometimes immediate attention was needed in the midst of an involved and maybe rambunctious activity. “One, two, three. Look at me,” I would call out in my best teacher voice. “One, Two. Eyes on you,” the children would answer in unison and, immediately, it became silent with everyone waiting for my direction or suggestion. For the moment, we were all in agreement. All headed in the same direction.
Outside the remains of a school or inside busy classroom – different circumstances, different methods, similar outcomes. Instant focus. Instant willingness to comply with whatever is needed. A complicit understanding that for this moment in time, our individual concerns need to give way for something more important. One way or another, we are in this together and the best way forward is to work as one.
Of course, the image of silent fists was gone from my television screen before any cohesive thought could occur. It wasn’t until later, after returning again and again to that image in my mind, that I realized what a powerful moment I had witnessed. In the days that have followed, as the images of strife and discord, of pompous posing and vicious threats clutter up the news, I can’t help but think why can’t we just all raise a clenched fist and agree on silence — so we can focus on what really matters?