The line “What fresh new hell is this?” was famously coined by the American critic Dorothy Parker when her writing was interrupted by the telephone. There’s something deeply true captured by Parker’s flippant phrase, that oh-so-human experience of feeling overwhelmed by one calamity while still in the throes of previous one.
I prefer numbness to fresh hells, myself. My youthful love affair with alcohol was all about not-feeling. Suffering simply sent me reeling (usually toward a drink). Even decades later, I find it hard to stay present to discomfort and distress, whether it belongs to me or someone else.
If you’ve been awake for the last month—or the last few years, for that matter—it’s hard not to echo Parker. Start with global climate change; add in forest fires, drought, and extinctions; pour on COVID and homophobia; season with anti-black, anti-indigenous, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian racism; shake together with economic inequity. Voilà! Fresh new hells, everywhere!
Numbness, of course, is always an option. But my expert opinion, acquired through a lifetime of testing, is that oblivion doesn’t solve anything in the long run. A break is necessary, for sure; but when you opt for long-term unconsciousness, you end up living a half-dead life.
Another thought: even having the option to tune out is a matter of privilege. The option to ignore difficult issues relies on my social location. Change the colour of my skin, my parents, the size of my bank account, the faith of my childhood, the country of my origin, or my gender orientation, and I am sentenced to living life on full alert. Numbness is dangerous.
Today, my pondering leads to the unmarked graves at the Kamloops and Marieval Residential Schools, and the murder of the Muslim family in Ontario. If you’re a privileged person like me, you might have wondered what you could possibly do. Privilege doesn’t necessarily translate into feeling powerful; many of us feel helpless to change things.
There’s a phrase, “If they can live it, I can bear witness to it.” It means that the least we can do for each other is to seewhat the other has been required to live through. It’s not about getting emotional, it’s not about fixing, and it’s not about guilt. Witnessing is a way of saying “Yes, what you’re feeling, that’s true.” Witnessing is the first step toward change, for us personally and for the culture.
Witnessing doesn’t involve asking, “What is it like to be (Indigenous, Muslim, Black, etc.)?” Our neighbors have more important things to do than to bring out their personal pain for show and tell. There are many places to learn; here are a few suggestions. “In Plain Sight,” the 2020 BC Health Care report on discrimination. The TRC. Valarie Kaur, Revolutionary Love. Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands. From the Ashes, Jesse Thistle. Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse. The free online course at the University of Alberta, “Indigenous Canada.”
If others can live it, I can bear witness to it.