OFF CENTRE: Where were you when …
Where were you when flames licked and lashed in an evil conflagration that choked the last breaths out of six daughters, sisters, friends, girls from scarcely farther away than next door in this li’l Buhbaydus?
Campus Trendz, September 3, 2010. Four years tomorrow.
I know tons o’ people rushed down to a lit-up, smoked-up sky in The City as fire savaged our fellow humans. Were you in the throng nearby, thoughts a-frenzy, heart burning at the extreme, the incomprehensible, the surreal?
Were you riveted as on a spectacle or in a clenched-jawed, pursed-lips, muddle-headed daze as the worst seemed to be coming to the worst?
Did righteous anger rise up in you at how we could go so low – in valuing life and in disregard for other things that you could feel but I can’t write on this sometimes legally misshapen rock where somebody might be looking to sue me even in this morass of wrong?
Did you, as word whizzed round, swell with pride at heroic souls who courageously fought a losing battle?
But everybody couldn’t get there, though probably the whole of Barbados wished they could. But we knew.
And if you were not there, where were you at the devilish interruption?
Were you stopped in mid-laugh, when news flash or telephone call or ensuing numbness silenced the television and drowned out the comedy of a sitcom?
Were you on the night shift and shock downed your tools to the accompaniment of goose-pimpled skin and locked-open mouth?
Were you with family when this grief rushed in and you looked at the others with refreshed eyes of intimacy and felt an overpowering gladness about them?
Did you, amid bottles and glasses and banter and drinking buddies, curse and fret and frown in this too-sobering moment?
Did you whisper a prayer and look up to the sky in hope?
Did you stop your car, pull over to the side of the road and sob like they don’t think a man should?
Did you, alone with your thoughts and anguish, wonder about the meaning of this short life and whether you were making yours count?
Expressions of love
Did you call your mother or father or sister or brother out of the blue and find some fumbling way to tell them you loved them?
Did you, so close, too close – fuh real – squeeze your eyes shut, beckoning an escape by way of sleep?
You might have noticed that in my treatment here the “where” in “where were you?” did not mostly refer to the physical.
In many of life’s tearing situations, our noble emotions are the wellspring of our most profound engagement. We need to nurture, much more than is our general tendency, that aspect of our response.
But even as we seek to get the young more involved, we have an overbalanced emphasis on opening them up to ideas and on creating big spaces for their ideas.
Those things are important, but what about their emotional development? What about that which clearly moved Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa and others to be truly redemptive and not just activistic?
Do you meet people who spit ideas left, right and centre but you get the sense that while they care about causes and the “masses”, they don’t seem to care about individuals? Hence, they strike you as being like Linus in the Peanuts comic strip: “I love mankind; it is just people I can’t stand.”
Yes, we need ideas, ’cause, after all, we have to chart paths. But an absence of (or, certainly, little developed) empathy, sensitivity, righteous anger, sense of closeness, respect, hopefulness, altruism, kindness, shock, contentment, affinity, friendliness, abhorrence, grief, chagrin, admiration, heartbrokenness, remorse, forgiveness, forbearance and so on leaves us way short of true humanity and always more than likely to act in dangerous ways.
If we do not engage situations and people emotionally – which is not a synonym for irrationally – we run the risk of being bad people with good ideas. The world has too many of them.
We have to fight causes, make no mistake about it, but one chink in man’s pursuit of causes has been in many cases an unconcern about what someone put as “How then shall we live”. Far too often after a cause’s victory, naked emotional underdevelopment entrains excesses and abuses among the very ones who linked arms in the cause.
So I wish that we would employ approaches that can increase our emotional quotient.
Our experiences must be mined not just for the ideas they throw up but for their emotional gold as well. Campus Trendz, the Arch Cot cave-in, the Joe’s River accident, the “Hot Pot” drownings, the disappearance of Thelia Snagg, Obadele Thompson’s Olympic bronze, Ryan Brathwaite’s IAAF World Championship gold, Andrea Blackett’s Commonwealth Games gold, Sir Garry’s 365, the first Independence ceremony, the death of Errol Barrow.
How can we, as is often helpful, get to live in the presence of the past? How can we get to live through situations in which we were not present?
Through the crafting of vicarious experience, we can make these things live on, not principally to memorialise or editorialise them, but so that they can continue to enlarge our humanness and thereby improve our engagement of situations and each other.
Sometimes, especially for those not intimately connected to the event, the emotional response of even those who were present is a temporary thing, disappearing by and by as they live life away from the scene.
The recreated event, in particular by way of print or oral storytelling (including song), allows one the opportunity to enter in again and again and to slowly process and reprocess and let the emotions help create a broader, deeper human response.
Unfortunately, our oral artistes largely shun poignant stories, portrayals of felt experience or undergoings, preferring to deluge us with little-disguised arguings, which have no power to nurture transport and simulation and rehearsal towards empathy, connection, and the many facets of kindredness.
But a more conscious engagement of our best emotions not only aids emotional development, it also spawns ideas too – ideas that, more than likely, put a high value on individuals.
That’s why it would do us well to approach “literature” differently in our schools (as emotional and experiential engagement). Fat chance!
So, where have we allowed, say, the Campus Trendz fire to take us emotionally?
Where were you then? Where are you now?
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.