A sense of perspective is important, but even the luckiest among us will be affected by the coronavirus – and it’s OK to say so
It is possible that the first foreign words I learned were Kalashnikov (better known as the AK-47) and Antonov. They signify what it means to be born in the midst of a war.
The Kalashnikov is infamous across the world. The Antonov was Khartoum’s deadliest weapon during the war with the country that is now known as South Sudan. The Sudan airforce turned the Russian-made plane into an “angel” of death, spitting fire from the skies. The plane would carry out indiscriminate aerial bombings that cut down trees, demolished buildings, and disfigured and killed people. From the children to the chickens, we became familiar with the cries of the Antonov.
The chickens, my mother said, sounded the first alarm that danger was approaching. They became restless, clucking noisily, flapping their wings and running aimlessly. I knew then, mum stressed, it was time. “I’ll begin herding the children into the foxholes.” Foxholes were deep holes in the ground to provide protection from the aerial bombings. The one we had in our compound was covered with wood and iron sheets for extra protection. But it was never a complete protection. If the bomb landed close to the foxhole, it would bury everyone in it alive. If it landed on top of it, that was it: “There was nothing left to bury.”
I thought I was coping in isolation but this week something in me snapped
There was no warning, beside the chickens, of
There was no warning, beside the chickens, of when the Antonov came. You lived with the frightening certainty that it would come but didn’t know when or the destruction it would leave behind. That sense of uncertainty and unease is the essence of the experience of war and displacement. Most refugees of war-torn South Sudan woke up one day and found their lives changed forever. And over time, they watched the abnormal becoming normal: families torn apart and eventually becoming strangers; parents losing children too young to die, or watching them slowly and pitifully wither away in refugee camps; and gradually, after fleeing from one country to another, forgetting the feeling of home.
Until recently, many people living here in Australia could not imagine how life can change so quickly. How life can go from normal to fighting over toilet paper.
Now that we are faced with a world that has changed drastically in a short period of time – just like wars abruptly uproot lives – I wonder if people are comparing their somewhat more challenging, less comfortable circumstances with those whose lives are very much harder and more frightening. Perhaps, when faced with a level of pain, we are better able to value our privilege. It is also helpful to learn from others and from history. To know that, in comparison, ours is not the greatest suffering. That history repeats itself and far worse has happened. However, as individuals, we experience events immediately and personally. For people who have lost, and those who will lose, a loved one to the coronavirus, no amount of contextualising will make it easier to bear. It will be devastatingly personal. Mark Twain wrote that: “Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.”
Keeping in mind both the personal and the contextual during this pandemic can be beneficial, as experts sound the alarm about the emotional footprint this virus will leave behind. That speaks to the challenge still ahead and the work many, if not all, of us will have to undertake to find meaning and value while the normal things we relied on, like having a job and easy connection to family and friends, are no longer guaranteed. To balance the global and the personal requires acceptance of the fact that no matter our past suffering or current privilege, no one is exempt from the act of living life as it presents itself. We experience it, each of us, essentially on our own.
No matter how relatively privileged we undoubtedly are to be living in Australia, there is only so many times you can tell yourself “I am so lucky” before it is no longer a useful coping tool. It takes you far, just not all the way. So what I am suggesting is a pause. A pause to acknowledge that things have changed and that it hurts, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. A pause long enough to allow you to gauge your ability to be resilient. That is, to allow time to look, without judgment, whether our well of resilience is running dry because, in my experience, resilience is a finite internal resource. Checking into oneself without judgment allows us to take a true account of how we’re coping and if/how we need to replenish that well. To know when we need to call a friend, when we need to go for a walk, when we need to clear our mind, perhaps even when we need to cry.
By paying attention to the world and the wider society, we can practise empathy, which is also a source of replenishment. We can practise kindness. We can look to the world, thankful for our relative good fortune, without discounting our personal journey through this global upheaval.
Nyadol Nyuon is a lawyer at Arnold Bloch Leibler
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