Next to my bed is a small framed drawing of a stone gargoyle. I sketched it sitting on the steps in front of Notre Dame cathedral, when I was 18, the summer I travelled through Europe before college. You know the one. It sits (sat?) on the balcony of the north tower. When you took the dark winding stairs up and up and up and then looked blinking out over the Seine and the beautiful city surrounding it, this was the winged and horned gargoyle to your right — leaning its elbows on the parapet and looking over Paris with you. Every time I see that small sketch, I remember what it was like to be young and amazed.
It is possible every person reading this has a similar story. A story about the first time you saw the carved twin spires from the taxi window. Or it could have been the impossibly thin flying buttresses that spring up when you approach the cathedral from the left bank. Maybe it was the giant rose window that painted the pillars with coloured light in the afternoon.
And if you were never in Paris, you probably have important, meaningful memories of Notre Dame nonetheless. The moment you cried when you reached the last page of Victor Hugo’s novel, describing the skeletons of Quasimodo and Esmeralda locked in an embrace. Or, maybe you remember being curled up on the couch with your parents, the VCR on, watching the animated gargoyles come to life.
It is trite to say Notre Dame belongs to all of us. Nonetheless, it is true. The cathedral is not just a familiar silhouette on the Parisian skyline, but a landmark in our own lives. All of us can trace its distinctive lines in our mind’s eye. For most of us, we are just realizing now, at this moment, how much those spires mean to us on a personal, private level. And watching it burn actually hurts, with a real physical ache in the stomach.
We don’t often feel these things together. Ironically, our global efforts to connect everyone to everyone has also allowed us to disconnect from each other. Our shared experiences are fewer and fewer as we all escape into our own custom digital world. Each of our online communities are gated and fenced, small and insular. We think they are expansive and eclectic, but in truth we are all mostly locked in little chat rooms of the like-minded.
We no longer talk about the same movies or books, each of us bingeing and streaming according to our own specific tastes. We no longer experience the news through shared eyes — instead we’ve picked specific lenses, left and right, to deliver a particular reality, tinted just so, to our screens. Facebook didn’t connect us, it corralled us.
This is why today hurts so much, because days like this are so rare and so much more. The entire world is watching Notre Dame burn (it is still on fire as I write this). Everyone you know is wincing with some private memory of Paris, of the cathedral, And somehow, we can feel that shared pain. And this sudden, universal, collective mourning doesn’t make it easier to bear. It gives it more meaning, it makes it more intense, it makes it heavier.
Hold on to that feeling. It doesn’t happen often. And it matters. In an age when it is so easy to live apart, we need to remember there are still so many things that bind us. And tragically, today, there may be one less.