After having children, I found myself
on my habitual drive to work, listening
to NPR, suddenly weeping. A story
that before would have rolled past,
now salt-stung skin that felt laid bare,
raw and open to the world’s horrors
and tragedies. Not just news of
suffering children (though that was
the worst — Sandy Hook incapacitated
for close to a week). Endless stories
of a factory collapse, an earthquake,
disasters man-made and those
beyond our control would set me
weeping on the drive, wiping the tears
away, as I tried to cling to normalcy.
Raising children helped. Steeling
myself to extract a splinter from a wailing
child, cultivating calm when hunting
for a child who might have been kidnapped
but was almost certainly simply hiding
or distracted, pushing down the panic
because what they needed was a mommy
who was calm and capable, not spinning
in shattered circles. Slowly, you build
a solid core, you become the still center
of their world, the rock they can cling to.
When they are small, everything is a
tragedy, a disaster. The smallest injury
elicits distress, and it is part of your job
to help them calibrate, to understand
they do not need to fear the world’s
ending at a splinter, a skinned knee,
a cruel word from a supposed friend.
They need a little callus to protect them.
But this world — this desperately unfair
society we have built, starts layering on
its calluses too. It is skilled at that work,
and most of us emerge to adulthood
armored in heavy layers of indifference,
self-interest. We are too busy worrying
about ourselves to care about our neighbour
(next door, across the country or the planet),
far too busy to fret about the suffering land,
the mute creatures who walk it, fewer every day.
A variant spelling for callus, is callous.
This is the work we must do, every day,
letting the callus be stripped away, laying
ourselves bare to the world’s horrors.
Sometimes, a particular tragedy punches
through, and the story of a dentist and
a beloved lion, one of a disappearing few,
lured from his safe haven to forty hours
of suffering, then death, is what gets us.
It’s an opening. A puncture in the armor,
and through that weakened spot, perhaps
a little more compassion will flow, widening
it further over time. Once you start to care
about a lion on the other side of the world,
maybe you will pay a little more attention
when your vegan friend pontificates on
the evils of factory farming. Maybe you will
buy the cage-free eggs for a change, or
simply have lentils for dinner that night.
Once animal lives matter, maybe black lives
will matter more too. Maybe not. There
are no direct lines here, and we all live
enmeshed in an inconsistent web of desire
and habit, compassion and compromise.
But this is my hope. That we will slowly
wear away the callus, lay ourselves open
and raw to the suffering of the world. And
at the same time, that we will have built
that strong, still center, so that when the
world’s pain comes sleeting at us, we
may stand upright, are not overwhelmed.
It may be too much to ask, that we take on
such arduous, painful labor for ourselves.
Perhaps we will do it for our children. Or,
perhaps our children will look back at the lives
we lived, horrified at our callousness. And that
will be a victory too. Slowly, slowly, we progress.
July 30, 2015