A Meditation on Suffering

I’m currently reading ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain, and its personal story of sorrow has got me thinking about how much we can possibly endure, and how we can lessen the impact. Are there lessons we can learn from those terrible years of War? This particular War story was written in 1933. Brittain wasn’t to know at the time what was looming on the horizon. How did people cope with living through two World Wars? Were they made of ‘stronger stuff’?

Testament of Youth has moved me to tears twice, and I’m not even halfway through. Despite having read other poignant World War novels, the fact that this is true makes it harder to stomach somehow. Brittain describes her blossoming relationship with her fiancé Roland, and quotes letters they wrote to each other back and forth from the front. Imagine the man you loved being so close in modern day terms, but the only contact being through letters, sometimes days apart? Newspapers were the only source of news about the conflict, and those stories often muted the facts or amplified the victories, with little in common with the reality of living in the trenches.

Living with that amount of uncertainty must have been almost overwhelming for those at home. Brittain, along with countless other young women enlisted as a VAD and through herself into nursing. She did so in an effort to feel closer to the discomfort to what she imagined her lover and the other men at the front would be faced with. The physical hard work was the only thing that kept her going through bleak times that are unimaginable today.

The conditions she lived and worked in made that suffering all the more acute. She and the other nurses had to walked 1.5 miles from their basic lodgings and back in all weathers, and worked 7am – 8pm at night, before having the long cold, wet walk home. The accommodation didn’t have adequate heating or bathroom facilities, and no privacy. There was no psychological support or counselling and no work legislation around leave or breaks. I know that medical professionals work under similar conditions now, but was the hardship worse then than now?

One of Brittain’s chief reasons for writing her story was that she wanted to document what it meant to be a young person living through War. How she and her generation lost the experiences of youth that were expected in those times, and indeed still are today – being able to go to University, court potential suitors, socialise and be creative through music, writing or painting. But, those young people had to grow up too quickly, and their youthful flightiness made way for sorrow and loss.

I wonder what young people today think of this, whether they feel the same during the current pandemic. Do they feel that their best years have been hijacked by something bigger than them?

I walked along Weymouth beach yesterday, the sand smooth and golden. I thought about how much freedom we have, and that, this beach probably hasn’t changed much since the Great War. The waves still wash lazily up the shallow beach, the sand still sticks to toes and the tide still pulls and pushes the water relentlessly.

I visited Lulworth castle today. There’s a MOD artillery range nearby, and they were doing an exercise while we were there. The dack -a-dack of a machine gun and boom of distant explosions echoed round the outside space. The noise was impossible to ignore, but the sheep round the castle grounds nonchalantly munched the grass. It made me realise how incredible the noise must have been from constant bombardment from shells in the trenches. The noise from the artillery before the battle of the Somme and other fierce offensives was heard on the south coast of England. Just that fact made me think so much about what the Tommy’s stuck in muddy trenches we’re thinking about whilst that bombardment was going on, knowing when it stopped they would have to go over the top and into no mans land. Young men, just like out friends, children, partners or grandchildren. Petrified, traumatised and there due to a belief that heroism is exalted. But the reality is dying in agony in a muddy field in France.

Brittain put it succinctly”

For me, as I know is the case for us all, this pandemic causes suffering because of the amount of uncertainty it causes, the lack of an end point, the realisation that nothing is going to be the same as before and the feeling of impotence. This silent killer who could pass you by unscathed, or could cause a loved one to die alone. To live in discomfort is hard to sustain. Although we may not have the hardships Brittain and her contemporaries suffered, ours is no less valid. Loneliness was already contributing towards a whole host of physical and mental health complaints that leads to an earlier death. Social distancing and lockdowns have exacerbated the feeling of disassociation. For some people, there have been positives. I’ve got to know about my neighbours more due to a street what’s app thread, but there will be people living on the street who aren’t part of that, and live alone or are not au fair with technology. How are they suffering? Worklessness, disconnection, lack of human touch, missing out on important milestones such as new babies, weddings, even leaving drinks when you get w new job. It has an impact.

I do t want to belittle the suffering of those who sacrificed so much during both World Wars, and those who are currently living in conflict zones, but I feel that suffering is touching all of us in a way most of us haven’t ecpericed collectively before.

Do we rally together? Is there a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ that our politicians are so keen fir us to emulate. Is clapping on our footsteps enough to get us through this? As weeks turn into m in this, and we realise that this is how things are going to ge now. How can we become comfortable with this discomfort? Do we throw ourselves into personal projects? Start new careers? Volunteer to be part of medical trials?

Or do we all take up our mantles and wear our face coverings, is ash our hands and stay away from other people.

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