Saturday, January 30, 2010

From a comfortable middle-class armchair

It’s all very well being able to focus on birdsong when the rawness of my grief has settled into painful scar tissue and when I live in the tree enclosed security of a New Zealand garden but it would be crass beyond belief to suggest birdsong or sunrise to a survivor of a Haitian earthquake who had just witnessed the lingering death of family and neighbours. 85% of the population of Haiti were already below the poverty line and are now living with no guarantee of food, shelter, warmth or as one BBC announcer put it, comfort.

We can turn to the writings of the poets, for example, from Macbeth: “Come what, come may:/time and the hour runs through the roughest day” or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Comfort that serves in a whirlwind:/each live death does end, and each day dies with sleep.” But these are only on the surface of comfort; all they are telling us is that life continues, not that tomorrow will be better. Paul’s death was hideous, but the very worst was waking the next morning and knowing he was dead. It’s the scale of the disaster that appalls us.

200,000 deaths are strictly speaking, no worse than one death repeated 200,000 times within a few months, the deaths arouse in us compassion, and I trust, no suggestion of prurience and maybe: “There but for the grace of God go I”, which appears just to be saying that I am fortunate and other people are so unfortunate (an elderly woman said that to me several times until I asked what it was saying about me and the grace of God). But if you unpick the saying completely, it is implying that God’s grace is on the side of some of the inhabitants of the world and not on the side of the others, an echo of the nineteenth century belief that if you were wealthy, it proved you were in God’s favour.

In the end it is probably the fact that we are so totally out of control that shocks us, that the world we live in is not gracious and generous towards us. Instead, we are at its mercy.


  1. Diana,
    Lovely to read your last two postings. Yes, Haiti has been much on our minds also-incomprehensible as to the suffering; frustrating to the point of wanting to scream at the slowness of the response, such tremendous resources available and yet seemingly impossible to deliver quickly. Wanting to go help but knowing I'd be just another mouth to feed and with pretty useless skills.
    Unfortunately I feel that such disasters are only going to become more and more a routine part of the planet's history- with increasing population (often concentrated in urban areas) and decreasing resources, including deforestation. The only proven remedy for saving resources and lowering the birth rate is educating girls and women and investing in their self-sufficiency. Hopefully more and more agencies will recognize this in time. Recently more attention has been focused on this issue as a result of Greg Mortenson's wonderful book, Three Cups of Tea.
    I loved the snippet about your friend's child's response to what he should say after receiving a gift. I still laugh at an incident in my cousin's family: It was morning and Dad had just walked out of the bathroom in the buff and his 3+ year old daughter (who had not seen him naked before) was in the bedroom. She studied him for a moment and then said "Daddy, are you going to take that to work with you?"

    We are having such a mild winter; such a contrast to last year--as I write this the birds are announcing Spring all through the trees around the garden. I hope they don't get a rude surprise later! love to you, Diane

  2. When I think of my 'middle-class armchair' I am astounded by the realisation that I am 64 years old and have not yet experienced the death of anyone closer to me than grandparents. The gulf between me and pretty well all others of my age is enormous. The gulf between me and the Haitians is incomprehensible. Your journal puts word around the ineffable very well, Diana. Thank you.