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Too much and not enough

I live in an area where the scream of an emergency vehicle’s siren is such a rare occurrence that I think about each and every one I hear.

I might hear one a day in the summer, when the population momentarily swells with holidaymakers, and wonder if a child has fallen on rocks, or someone has crashed driving too fast around a corner on our narrow lanes or if people are trapped in a burning building. I’ll take a few seconds to remember where each of my children currently is and if it might be one of them. I will think about the day our son came off his bike and landed on his head and my stomach will flip with remembered anxiety. I will think about the respective times my father was rushed into hospital with angina and a head injury and I will think about who I know that might have a heart attack or a fall. Has my mother fallen down the stairs in her cluttered house? Has my mother-in-law had breathing difficulties again? Is it a fire engine, a police car or an ambulance and where are they going?

When my father was receiving treatment at The Royal Marsden hospital in Chelsea I would speak to him every day on the phone and I could hear a siren in the background every minute. Each one of those sirens symbolised pain, death, heartache, violence, fire, and fear to me and I wondered how people cope living with those sounds constantly.

I wonder now how long it would take me to get used to it if I lived in a city. How long before I would have to put up a barrier, block out my empathy, sympathy, worry for others and just let those sounds of pain, death, heartache, violence, fire and fear be background noise in order to survive. You can’t be worried, anxious, distressed and empathetic all the time. It’s not possible and it’s not healthy.
Maybe we shouldn’t be living in situations where we have to though. Maybe being overexposed to an excess of human suffering means we switch off too much. Do we become desensitised?

In the nearest town to where I live the few homeless people there are remain relatively hidden. You’d have to actively go looking for them. I know they are there because I’ve read about them but I don’t know where they sleep. Occasionally there’ll be someone asking for change in a shop doorway and it’s so rare I do give them money. I couldn’t give money to every homeless person if I lived in a major city though. After a period of guilt and discomfort I suppose I would just learn to walk past them faster like everyone else.

The news from all over the world is available to us constantly. If we choose to we can read about violence, famine, drought, destruction of rainforests, bloody revolutions, religious hatred, murder, evil dictators, the regular reports of the complete cock-up the government are making of the NHS, schools and welfare all day and every day. Or if we choose we can completely block all of that because ‘there’s just too much sadness in the world’ and read about which celebrities have had a baby or lost weight, who’s broken a rule in a football match, who’s won one of the ridiculous number of talent shows on TV or whether Adele’s voice is all better now…

I wonder if we know too much now. If we share too much. Is it becoming necessary to distract ourselves more and more from the constant distress? Do we become fixated on pointless things – while refusing to believe they are pointless – in order to fill our hearts and minds with lighter emotions? Has life become a series of shallow, petty obsessions about appearances and fancy things, sport and light entertainment to jolly up our sad world?

Everything’s become too big for all of us. Is that it? It’s too overwhelming. It’s not manageable, so we switch off?

I live in a village popular for weddings and I think about the wedding bells each time I hear them. I think about love and commitment and new beginnings and how wonderful love and marriage can be when they work out. I think about nerves and excitement and promise. But I can never help myself thinking, I hope they haven’t put everything on this one day; I hope it’s not just thousands of pounds on showing off and a dress and flowers never to be seen again and food for hundreds of people who they hardly know. I hope they’ve thought about the rest of their lives and the serious commitment and the future.

I often wonder what people are really thinking about. Is everyone constantly trying not to think about anything really serious? And I wonder what I am actually achieving by thinking about serious things.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. As you know, Rach, I go through periods of thinking about the world and the pain and distress so many people are feeling because of the selfishness and callousness of others and I get angry and sad and it hurts. It physically hurts, somewhere deep inside me. And I can go on, feeling angry and sad and thinking about it all for a while, but then I have to distance myself from it all or all I would do would be to sit in a corner, weeping and shaking and not going out.
    Every weekend there are sirens here: we have a dreadful record of road deaths, youngsters with too much money and too little sense screeching around dangerous country roads as if they were unbreakable. And every weekend there will be a new shrine at the side of the road where flowers, teddies and football scarves have been left as a tribute to those who have died.
    I see people ostentatiously strutting around the supermarkets, loading their trollies with booze and… stuff, pushing other people out their way and never saying please and thank you. And it makes me despair of the world. All of it. We live in a society where we have so much, yet we treat other people like they don’t matter and I have to remove myself from it all or I’d go mad. I stop watching the news and reading about the ills of the world not because I don’t care, but because I care too much.


  2. Some fascinating thoughs here Rachel, thank you for writing it.

    With regard to the pain and sadness in the world, I think you’re right to point out that overexposure is sometimes the unfortunate result of the society we live in. I attempt to shield myself from this neverending torrent of suffering, though I know in some cases (such as the present situation in Syria) it is unavoidable, and being without this knowledge, upsetting though it may be at times, means we are unable to exert what little influence we might have to change things for the better.

    However, quite a proportion of this exposure (misery-lit, celebrity magazines, etc) is unnecessary, and one could easily spend their lives wallowing in this vicariously. I’d never want to conclude that my own emotions on an event directly affecting me had been weakened by the “bread and circuses” of Panorama or Heat magazine.

    Incidentally, there was a fabulous piece in the Guardian the other day ( where eight photographers reflected on incidents where they felt they should have done more to help those they witnessed in need, but many had come to the conclusion that their neutral status and the ability of their work to reach a wide audience could do so much more to save lives than their immediate assistance ever could. It’s a tough and heartbreaking call to make and I can’t say I envy them whatsoever.

    One major side-effect of the neoliberal economic doctrine of the seventies and eighties has been a loss of social solidarity in many areas (think Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” speech). Today’s political discourse encourages the flawed theory that we have become a meritocracy, yet little evidence demonstrates that this is indeed the case.

    As a consequence, failures of society, markets and the environment are re-cast as personal failures on the part of individuals. (If the planet is facing catastrophe, recycle. If you can’t find a job, that’s your fault, work harder, etc.) Collective action could do so much to improve these issues, but the option no longer seems to be available to us from our political class. In this era of general malaise, the idea that we might need to analyse structural problems such as rampant inequality seems to have fallen by the wayside.



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