Every day we learn new things about the people around us; at least, I do. Often it is humbling. People you have known for years, not very well, but well enough to remember their preference for milk and sugar, the name of their pet and where they went for their holiday last summer. It may be a colleague, or the woman you talk to every morning as you queue for your coffee in the coffee shop, or the man who sits opposite you on the train. You get talking, you learn a very little about their life, and, God help you, you form an opinion.
At least, if you are like me, and a lot of people I know are, you form an opinion. This person has got to the stage of complaining about their neighbour, or their boss. You might venture advice on how to make up. You look at photos of the grandchild, or the dog (always making sure you never muddle them: was the baby called Toby and the dog Frankie, or was it the other way around?).
After days or weeks or months or years you feel you know them, and you may feel they are a bit mundane. You might feel they could have done more, been more, earned more. You might be frustrated with their shortcomings. Alternatively they might talk about the other things they do, singing in a choir, or painting scenery for the AmDram Society, or helping out with Scouts or Guides, or teaching tae kwon do to pensioners, or whatever. You might wish you were good at something too, and dream about taking up flower arranging or jazz cornet or dressage.
Time goes on and familiarity breeds contempt, benign or otherwise. They might have raised hundreds of pounds for Multiple Sclerosis but it’s not the Nobel Peace Prize, is it? All they did was jump out of a plane: it’s just falling, gravity does the work. Why do they keep going on about it?
Then one day you get a glimpse of something deeper. You learn about a personal tragedy that would have brought you to your knees and left you gibbering in a darkened room for the rest of your life. Yet they go on. They continue to moan about the boss and run the Guide camp and arrange flowers as if nothing had happened. Except something did.
People are amazing. In all probability you, reading this, are handling or have handled, or maybe will handle, some disaster that would destroy me. Perhaps I have done the same for something that may have been more than you could take.
When we learn about what others manage we are often shamed or humbled or inspired. We believe that suffering engenders nobility.
“She’s such a brick,” we say. Or “He’s a saint.”
My observation is that in most cases we manage because we must. This does not reduce the achievement or the suffering. I believe it merely is.
We manage because we must and sometimes that generates enough rage or despair to give us the energy to change it, or at least to survive it.
Part of my mind, the sneaky bit at the back which I prefer to ignore, suggests slyly that the rest of us glamorise this to paper over the fact that until we knew about the Tragedy we thought that person was a bit of a loser. We feel guilty for writing them off as ordinary, because ordinary suffering is not noble, and our own suffering becomes tawdry in comparison.
Am I too cynical today?
Perhaps we need to feel heroic, if only to ourselves, in order to be able to manage. And we manage because we must.
I learned of three people today dealing with tragedies of one kind or another. One laughed; one cried; and one said “we manage because we must”.
They are all amazing people. They have given me strength to manage too. Once upon a time someone else gave them strength.
We all share in one another’s pain, probably with no more than Six Degrees of Separation.
And so the light in me salutes the light in you. You are amazing.