"I thought – didn’t you? – that we were meant to get tougher as we got older. Children are delicate blooms to be sheltered from the cold, harsh winds of reality for as long as possible lest the tender shoots of their innocence be blighted.
Hormones ensure that during adolescence every nerve ending and synapse is alert and shivering constantly with exquisite sensitivity, but once you’re through that, the rest of life is just a gradual shrivelling and calcification of everything from joints to soul. Or, as that much-neglected philosopher of our youth Ally Sheedy put it in The Breakfast Club – when you grow up, your heart dies.
I was quite looking forward to it. How much easier life would become once it was reduced to working, eating, sleeping and no longer complicated by excessive feeling. But now I am well into my 30s I find that this promise of internal peace/ emotional deadness was but a phantom. Instead of becoming hardened, my friends and I are becoming softer by the minute. I cry more now than I ever did as a teenager. Admittedly, the news is particularly unrelentingly and genuinely bleak at the moment, with children being murdered in Manhattan bathtubs, 15-year-old girls being shot in the head by the Taliban, disabled people being abused in care homes and of course the whole vile and wretched Jimmy Savile saga, but I hit my sobbing point long before such horrors. I welled up when the Queen’s corgi died and I hit a new low by crying over the fate of 100,000 ash trees burned by environment officials to prevent the spread of disease.
I even welled up when the queen’s corgi died
I have one friend who deals with this problem by periodically banning all outside news from the house – she doesn’t turn the TV on until she has turned it to a ‘safe’ Sky channel like Comedy Central, she stays off Twitter and Facebook and no-one is allowed to leave newspapers, smartphones or computer screens where she might accidentally catch a glimpse of dreadful headlines. “It’s all too awful out there,” she explains. “I just need a week every now and then where I can pretend everything’s okay and regain my strength.” Another friend retreats into box sets, and I comfort read. Maeve Binchy, the Little House On The Prairie books, Lace, Scruples – anything that provides me a world that looks the same as ours but in which everyone is protected from its true horrors, by money and glamour, by Ma and Pa, by Fifties Irish-osity and by the ultimate safeguard of being fictional characters.
Perhaps the sheer number of precautions my friend has to take to seal herself off from the world holds a clue to our unexpected inability to deal with things as competently as our parents seemed to. Now, whenever A Bad Thing happens anywhere, we hear about it – instantly and insistently. Our brains are evolving much more slowly than technology. We’re still evolved to deal with the kind of problems thrown up by a band of a few dozen hunter-gatherers living together and on the same scale. We can’t keep the sense of scale we need when we are bombarded by terrible stories by the media. Our primitive brains can’t fully realise or rationalise the fact that they are a tiny fraction of the billions of deeds undertaken by millions upon millions of people round the globe. We think – or feel – that they are proliferating, everywhere, great tides of evil threatening to engulf us all.
In evolutionary terms, I suppose, we are now all children – not ready to cope with the world as it is but without, alas, an older generation to protect us from it. So our brains collapse and we start banning stuff from the house or crying into our morning coffee. Neither of which is very helpful. Perhaps the best way of looking at it is to say that in our reaction to the horrors that assail us is the seed of the answer to it. We are, after all, distressed because we empathise with the suffering that is going on – we do not want it to be so. We should blow our noses, dry our eyes and each find some way of improving our tiny little patch of the giant society we now find ourselves in. Which I for one will do, just as soon as I’ve stopped crying over these sodding trees."
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