In the 41 years I’ve known her, my nan has been an avid watcher of the news. I can picture her craning forwards in her armchair in front of the television, a pained expression on her kind, world-worn face, as whispered syllables of dismay issue from between her lips: tch; oh dear; no no; ahh; oh dear me.
Why watch it then? I used to think, rather bullishly.
I avoided the news for years. Somewhere between my teenage years and motherhood I lost the ability to deploy empathy boundaries. Anything upsetting – the ill-treatment of animals; children suffering; images of people starving – would cut me to the core and continue cutting for weeks, months or even years afterwards. The news, with its constant deluge of depressing stories, seemed a logical cull in order for me to preserve some semblance of equilibrium.
It wasn’t just the news, however. I clearly remember being reprimanded by one of my house mates at university for refusing to watch Schindler’s List, because I was scared of the impact (on myself, if you will!) of watching so much suffering and, infinitely worse, knowing it had all actually happened.
“You shouldn’t not watch it just because it will upset you!” cried my friend, her eyes blazing. “It’s meant to upset you. Everyone should watch it, to make sure those things never happen again.”
I felt rather ashamed, but how could I explain to my friend that ‘upset’ in my case consisted of sleep deprivation and daily mental torment for an untold length of time? As far as I was concerned, as there was no chance whatsoever of me ever developing or tolerating Nazi sympathies, there was no need for me to watch such a film.
When I became a mum everything was amplified a hundredfold, particularly anything involving children. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have a sense of patriotism where starving children are concerned!” I once blurted, semi-hysterically, when a group of acquaintances were having a moan about donating to Comic Relief while the UK was in a recession. “I’d be mummy to the whole world if I could!” Then I went off and had a good old self-righteous sob.
I subscribed to several of those £2-a-month charities but always changed channel the second one of their harrowing adverts appeared on the TV screen. I know it’s horrendous, I thought. I care. You don’t have to rub my nose in it. And the news continued to be horrific, and I continued trying to avoid it, but the stories and the names kept filtering through, despite my best efforts at avoidance: Victoria Climbie, Tiffany Hirst, Baby P, and the one that utterly broke my heart, caused me to break down in tears several times at work and deprived me of untold hours of sleep, Madeleine McCann.
I spent the days following Madeleine’s disappearance glued to BBC News 24, wishing, hoping and praying for her to be found. I could not comprehend some people’s attitudes surrounding the tragedy. Why should the Portuguese police spend all their time looking for her? Her parents shouldn’t have left her. As if she was nothing more than a camera, or an expensive gold watch that someone had carelessly left in an unlocked hotel room …
I couldn’t think about the police, or even the parents. My agonised mind could not reach beyond that little girl, and what she might be enduring at any given moment. I became obsessive, even though I knew that my inability to function on various levels because of a news story was not helping anyone, least of all the McCann family. All I could do was raise awareness and donate a little money to the search fund. That year I could not bear to celebrate my birthday, and asked for donations to the fund in lieu of gifts. I was not alone. I believe the world became a slightly darker place for many people, the day Madeleine McCann disappeared.
Then, a few days ago, Antoine Leiris posted a message addressing the terrorists who shot 129 people in Paris last Friday and, as one of the 15 million people who read it, my insular, self-protecting outlook changed for ever.
The weather was rubbish. I never like November much anyway (it’s always rife with sick bugs), and I wasn’t looking forward to work. I was in a real ‘can’t be arsed’ mood, to be completely honest, as well as exhausted and slightly under the weather, and was seriously considering rescheduling my teaching for another day.
Then I read Antoine Leiris’ words. I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled. I realised in a heartbeat that my response to suffering had been all about me: its impact on me, and my absurdly petty worry about my inability to deal with it. Deal with what, exactly? My life is utterly blessed. In the wake of the unthinkable, here was this amazing man demonstrating courage, hope, and the profound strength of love. His spirit was undaunted and he knew that he and his small son Melvil would be able to continue with their lives and their happiness despite the presence of heartbreak.
Needless to say, I pulled my socks up and drove to work, wiping away tears en route.
I watch the news now. I make the same sounds as my nan, but I watch. I have decided I can empathise and shed tears without wallowing indecently in someone else’s grief. If people endure horror, then I can certainly manage to endure bearing witness to it. I try to show a greater appreciation of what I have, too; counting your own blessings is not the same as thinking ‘I’m alright, Jack, pull up the ladder’. And for the really tough stories …? Well, some things do find their way into your heart. It’s probably called being human.
As for Melvil Leiris, I will continue to think of him as time moves on, as I do Madeleine McCann, but in a different way. Whenever he pops into my mind over the years, instead of welling up over the poor little boy who lost his mummy, I will attempt – in my own greatly watered-down way – to emulate the positive thinking of his father. I will imagine him at home and at school, with his friends or grandparents or with his dad, the best dad in the world. I will hope that he is happy, and I will strive to feel happy for him.
In the highly unlikely event that you have not yet heard or read Antoine Leiris’ tribute to his wife Helene: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34862437