You are cruising down the motorway when suddenly the gantry lights flash overhead telling you to slow to 40mph. The cars in front of you bunch together and the whole column of traffic slows down. It’s not obvious why, until ten minutes of crawling later, you see that there has been an accident on the other carriageway. The ambulance and police cars are there with their flashing lights, a group of people stand huddled by the verge, and the rescue crew crowd around a car upturned on the hard shoulder.
Immediately your annoyance transforms into sympathy and concern. You are frustrated that there’s nothing you can do to help. You say a quick prayer for the victims’ safety.
Then the traffic starts to speed up again, the radio plays a song you like and within seven minutes the most pressing problem in your life is whether little Jonny will make it to the next service station before he needs to wee.
For me, with no personal connection to the tragedy, the Grenfell Tower disaster plays out just like this. So did the bombing in Manchester. So does the refugee crisis and war in Syria. So did Hurricane Katrina and all the other terrible events that have hit our news screens in recent years. I am human, so are they, I imagine my life destroyed like theirs have been and I feel overwhelming sympathy.
We See, We Act
As a nation we have a reputation for generous response in these situations. That is to our credit. We see. We act. We buy the charity single, we make donations, we help clean up, we offer hospitality, we give financially, we remember people in our prayers.
The problem is that life moves on for most of us and as we drive past, we start to focus on our own lives again. These are things that happen to other people. We see them in news clips, but not close up.
We See, We Act, We Think
So here’s an idea. What if we pondered these events and thought about the web of actions that all came together at the wrong place and time to make them such a disaster. If we trace back through this tangle of causality, we will sooner or later find our place in it. As Priestley’s Inspector aptly puts it:
“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.”
Feeling guilty about this is pointless and slightly self-indulgent, so here is my idea.
We See, We Act, We Think, We Do
Keep a diary or a notebook. When the dust has settled on an event and everyone else has moved on, go back to the post-event analysis. See what has been decided upon as the root cause and think of one small change that would make you part of the solution rather than the problem. Write it down and build it into your life.
This could be something you do in community with others, or on your own. Be purposeful. Embrace small and beautiful changes. For example, Grenfell makes me think about my work. Am I always courageous enough to call out sloppy, dangerous practice where I work? It makes me think about austerity and the way I vote.
The terrorist attacks and refugee crisis make me think about integration and how much I go out of my way to widen my circle of friends to include people of different colour, creed and social background. I am also keenly aware that there are still many refugees drowning in the Med and sleeping rough in Northern France. I pledge not to forget them, even though the international media circus has moved on.
You get the picture. Nothing onerous, nothing big and flashy and short lived. Small, consistent change. If faith is believing in the good and taking action in the light of that belief, then, as a wise teacher once said:
Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.