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October 13, 2014 / Kate Gross

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.

12 Comments

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  1. Matthew Mercer / Oct 13 2014 9:04 pm

    Kate you truly are amazing – every post moves me to tears

    You write beautifully – I know it’s a terrible cliche but yours is such an incredible, inspirational story: I don’t know how else to put it

    Sending you all good wishes, strength and positive thoughts

    Matt

    X

    ________________________________

  2. Jack McConnell / Oct 13 2014 9:19 pm

    Kate. We all have these dilemmas. You just describe them more acutely and articulately than the rest of us. Am horrified by the lives being lost and the toll on the health services and society in Sierra Leone and Liberia after all their progress. And humbled by the bravery of their local health workers and the internationals who have gone to help. I want to believe I would be as brave if given the skills and opportunity. But I can’t be sure. Keep believing, stay engaged and continue writing – your lines mean so much. They will have an impact way beyond your boys, and that will impact on them too. Hugs. Jack

  3. anna / Oct 13 2014 9:29 pm

    Dear Kate,
    I think the heart is the muscle of compassion. As long as our hearts beat, we can find compassion for ourselves and everyone in the world, whether we know them or not, like them or not or understand them or not. It can be the simplest thing to be kind to those we love and have compassion for, and the hardest thing to be kind to those we don’t. It is all based on judgement and what is that judgement based on? Compassion is being open without judgement and fear and sharing kindness wherever we are and who ever we are with, doing whatever needs doing. Living each moment with compassion … that would be good! Thank you for the reminder. It is funny to see how much today has been skewed by my judgements. I’m going to take a deep breath, focus on my heart and feel my connection to everyone in the world, including you, and send out lots of love and be ready for whatever action I can take x

  4. Mel / Oct 13 2014 10:07 pm

    Dear Kate, so sorry to read that things have changed for you and you are back in hospital. You speak of being the woman you want your sons to know, I think they already know that woman to be amazingly courageous and full of compassion otherwise you wouldn’t have lived the life you have lived, or done the work you have done. Allow yourself time to retreat from the harsh world whilst you find your own north and south again. I don’t know about your beliefs but I am reminded of a prayer written by Tess Ward I hope you won’t be offended if I quote?
    O God of compassion, as I sit in the shadow of loss at this time, mend me gently when each wave of sadness comes. Hold my sense of diminishment with the generous love of a parent who sees every chapter of their child’s story. For it was you who knit me together in my mother’s womb, who knows my name and my journey and weaves all together with integrity.O God of our becoming, comfort me as this change settles and defines me anew, so I may rise up repaired in your loving kindness and greet all my tomorrows with faith and hope.
    I am sure you have many stories to tell of your life and what you have seen and I understand you have a book too, so just go on being you and know that we know a bit more about many things, about life and Africa especially because of you!
    Wish you over this current hurdle soon, you are in our thoughts and prayers x

    • Kate Gross / Oct 27 2014 9:37 pm

      I love this prayer – thank you for sharing it with me xx

  5. Anne / Oct 14 2014 8:48 am

    Your words always move me Kate. Your family must be very proud of you and wonderful way you have of expressing what others are thinking. The world at times seems a horrible place and the suffering, for people such as you and the innocent victims of war and strife, are too much to contemplate on for long. And yet we must think of and reach out to our fellow men and women – we don’t know why they carry out the evil acts they do – but we must try in some way to counteract the horror we are all witness to. My thoughts have been concentrated by your words this morning and I will try to act a little more kindly to others. Best wishes and hopefully you will be home and spending time with your family very soon.

  6. Fleur / Oct 14 2014 12:30 pm

    Your words and thoughts are inspiring. Expressing them so eloquently helps us all to think more compassionately about the world we live in. Your words, you, and your strength courage and conviction, will become a part of all those who read them.

  7. Ruth Susnick / Oct 14 2014 1:14 pm

    Dear Kate, You have done so much to leave a legacy for your children and your influence on them is indelible. I know they will have wonderful, worthwhile lives, just as you hope they do. They will know you very well. For you, I hope that your path is as gentle as it can be with moments that are happy and free of pain.

  8. Anthony Measures / Oct 14 2014 6:03 pm

    Dear Kate,

    Beautiful words as always and an amazing role model for your lovely boys.

    The Royal Marsden is an incredible, dedicated place, and I know you will be being looked after with love and dignity. My Mum spoke so highly of the staff there.

    We are always thinking of you.

    Love,
    The Measures family

  9. Charlotte-Anne Swerling / Oct 15 2014 10:49 pm

    Well I think I am truly skewered by this post as I am one of the people who turned off this summer. After my 9th consecutive night in tears I announced a ban on the 10 o’clock news in our house. Then to compound that I abandoned the newspapers in favour of a website which distills world news and only reports positive stories. Seriously, this exists.

    So you see I am fully the worst sort of offender for consciously turning inwards. The driver is not a lack of compassion though but rather that I care so very, terribly much but feel entirely impotent. I donate moderately and vote thoughtfully but that’s about it. But is there really any way for me to help others like the Syrian refugee boy (now dead) who broke my heart and will to watch a single bulletin more? Doing nothing but carrying on watching started to feel not only intensely upsetting and frustrating but even sometimes voyeuristic. Is there a way to help without changing my entire career and family’s life? And if not, is there nonetheless some value in just being aware so you know what you are failing to help?

    …I have known all along of course that there is and your post makes me face it. Thanks for the timely and needed slap. This ostrich will attempt to pull her head out of the ground.

    In awe of your writing and life achievements as ever.

  10. Clare Law / Oct 17 2014 8:04 am

    Thanks, I was wondering this week why my compassion seems to shut down and how I can poke it back to life. If you want to feel compassion, you have to feel compassion.

  11. Ah mercury / Oct 28 2014 2:36 am

    As I hold out my virtual hand to you I know you will feel it – warm and strong. It is one of many that will hold you and yours for the rest of known days. It is holding the hand of a small child in Africa and an old man in Syria. I am there for them as you are there for me.
    Such is the power of love.

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