Terry from Derry: Breathe at Last
By Terry Boyle
Double-vaccination, head above water, and how good it feels to breathe easy again. It’s been well over a year, and still, it seems as though we’re sure but not sure of whether we can or cannot return to normality.
Whatever our uncertainty about the present, there is no doubt that we’re a lot better off now than we were a year ago. It’s something I keep telling myself every time I hear, read, or see something that triggers off the response of battening-down-the-hatches. The one thing that I’ve learned from growing up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland is that you cannot live your life in fear of what might happen.
Fear has a way of paralyzing the spirit and disabling our ability to enjoy the present moment. We have no control over the what ifs but we can change our response to how things are now. In the present time, as the strictures of lockdown are beginning to ease, we can indulge ourselves in the things we have learned to live without.
The social life we had consigned to the limitations of zoom can now be resurrected, with a greater measure of appreciation. I’m not one for advocating throwing caution to the wind, but there are times when you need step outside of parameters of confinement and, as Thoreau puts Its ‘suck the marrow out of life’.
When my father couldn’t sleep he used to say, ‘I’ll sleep long enough when I’m gone’. Some of the drugs they gave him for his cancer made it impossible for him to get a good night’s sleep. He knew he was dying, and every difficulty his illness threw at him became an opportunity for him to savour what was left of his life.
His suffering, which I sure was worse than we saw, never stopped him from sucking the marrow out of life in that last year. The fortitude with which he met the approach of his demise was inspiring. I’m not sure how I would react under the same conditions, but it did make me think of how I take the simple things as a basic right, and not as a gift.
Every day is a gift. For those of us who are older, we have been blessed with so many of these daily gifts. I, for one, have traveled and seen many countries. Some of them prosperous, privileged places, whereas others bear the consequences of war and political upheaval.
In the early part of this new millennium, I was invited to go to Cambodia to help an orphanage in Phenom Penh. And, while I’d seen the heart wrenching film ‘The Killing Fields’, I was excited to see how the country had fared after the war; but I was also fearful of what I would encounter when we got there.
The orphanage, which was beyond my comprehension of a safe place, was for these children, a Godsend. The preadolescent boys and girls slept on different floors. We escorted to the top floor to what was considered to be the best room on offer. Our mosquito nets, sadly, did little to stop the flying nuisances from biting. And, at night, the floor of our room was besieged with largest insects I’d ever seen.
In the grounds below, the largest rats scavenged around in the dark. To top it all, our toilet and shower stall were one and the same with in a hole in the roof and a hole in the ground. It was no wonder that these children were constantly sick with such unsanitary conditions.
Yet, in the midst of such dire surroundings, the children and adults we spoke to were extremely resilient. Some of the adults suffered personal losses in the war against the Khmer Rouge.
They had seen things none of us, thankfully, will ever have to witness. And, it was against this backdrop of incredible pain that they greeted each day as a gift.
Despite the poverty, and sickness that surrounded them, they continued to hope. Their indefatigable hopefulness forced us to put our lack of comfort into perspective. The memory of that time is a constant reminder to me of how fortunate we are.
Only recently, I was bemoaning the blatant sense of privilege to a friend, and her response was, simple and true, ‘we’re all privileged’. Her comment sent my mind racing back to Phenom Penh, to the Romanian orphanages I visited, and ill-treated gypsies I encountered in Hungary and Romania.
Again, my perspective, needed to be adjusted or given a reality check.
We are, hopefully, reaching the end of this pandemic. We’re alive. We’ve been given another chance to change our future, reduce our need of fossil fuels, save the planet from becoming a cauldron of disease and suffering.
And, while there are things outside of our control we cannot change, there are those we can. As the serenity prayer puts it, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Fear is only the enemy when it incapacitates our ability to make decisions to better our lives. We cannot hide from our actions. The planet we inhabit is in serious danger of becoming a danger to all of us. This danger is a direct result of our foolish actions.
Global warming will not go away. If we think the pandemic was awful, the predictions for climate change are even more frightening. We are not incapable of change, but it does seem as if we are being forced by nature into some kind of intervention to muster up the courage to change before it’s too late.
Every day we’re alive is a gift. It’s a gift that we can pass on to those who come after us.
The pandemic is a good way to remind ourselves of how lightly we have taken our everyday interactions with family and friends. I don’t believe we should ever live our lives in fear, but if we continue to use and abuse our planet as we have been doing, we are making it impossible not to fear what will happen next. So, as we begin to breathe more freely, we should think ahead and make this world a place where others can live without fear of what is to come.