The wicked world out there
The world was too distressing for Today listeners this summer; apparently, they switched off in their droves. I grant you, the big out there looks pretty grim. Planes full of people like us are shot down by rockets, or mysteriously disappear from the skies. The Middle East convulses with pain, yet again. Millions sit in camps, fleeing from masked terrorists. Suddenly medieval beheading seems to be the mode of execution du jour; repulsing and leaving us wondering what will happen to us as we walk down our local high street. And three countries very close to my heart are wracked with a plague of blood and shit and vomit, threatening a decade of progress made since West Africa emerged from those awful wars of child soldiers and sparkly rocks.
I wasn’t one of those people who switched off. I didn’t need to: news doesn’t penetrate La France Profonde. All summer, I was quietly and happily myopic, distracted only by whether the attractive white cows were in the top field or not. And now I am back here I seem to be able to listen to Yazidi women howl as they kill their own daughters rather than watched them be raped – and I barely blink an eye. My tumours are insulating me from the world. The quotidian tragedy that is my own life consumes me. Pain is an anaesthetic, and there has been pain; my golden summer has disappeared into grisly autumn. I write this from hospital, where the smell of alcohol wipes and the endless bleep-bleeping of drips adds yet another barrier between me and the world. I turn inward on my body as it starts to really fail me.
But this is not who I am. I am someone who is moved by things; the torture chambers at Madame Tussauds were too much for my childhood sensibilities. News isn’t news, it is the lives of people I know; some in my dreams, and some in reality. Hey, I’m no saint. I’m selfish to the core, and all too often choose to feel *caring* only when it suits me: at work, where I tell myself that public service changes people’s lives, but not on our street where I shy away from the ranting woman cared for (or not) by the community. Empathy enough for those I see when I choose to turn on the TV, or the amputee children on the street when I travelled to Africa, but not for the woman opposite me who cries whilst she has chemotherapy. I have set my store on being someone who is involved with the world, who bears witness. But the truth is it’s always been hard. I am a woman of the Chorus from Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the type of common man who shuts the door and sit by the fire. Prepared to do her bit, but perhaps afraid to stand up and be counted when it counts the most.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.
There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and license,
There has been minor injustice.
Yet we have gone on living,
Living and partly living.
But, at least from my place by the fire I am thinking about these things. I wonder if compassion has to be practised. It is a muscle in our body, there from birth in all of us except the most psychopathic monsters. But it needs to be exercised; I can’t let it sit flabby and loose like my tattered abdominals and just expect it to suddenly power-lift weights. No, this muscle needs a regular work out. It needs to be forced to pay attention to other people’s suffering. To listen to the radio and not forget what I have heard when I switch it off. Not to avoid the woman on my street as she froths at the mouth and tries to speak to me. To talk to the homeless man selling the Big Issue outside the Grand Arcade as if he were the shop assistant at Space NK. To feel grateful that I have a comfortable, free hospital bed, unlike the scores who are dying on the steps of overcrowded hospitals in Monrovia, Freetown, Conakry.
I have to exercise this muscle because what happens in the wicked world out there is “woven like a pattern of living worms” into my guts, just as it was for the women of Canterbury. Or, to use a less repulsive image, No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. But it feels harder now than it ever has done. I look for your help to keep me connected to the main, not to let myself and my family float off into our own little world. Even as I turn in on myself I must turn outward; because that is who I am, and the woman I want my sons to know.
P.s. If anyone is thinking of running any marathons in the near future I couldn’t think of a better cause than Medicins Sans Frontiers whose staff are doing incredibly brave things in West Africa (and elsewhere), or StreetChild who are working in Sierra Leone and Liberia, including with the many, many new orphans of the Ebola crisis.