A Meditation on Suffering

I recently went on holiday to Dorset, and whilst I was there, I read ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. Isn’t it funny how sometimes, the place where you read a book makes the themes and characters come to life more than usual?

It’s personal story of sorrow intertwined with my visit, and got me thinking about how much we, as humans, can possibly endure. 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’?

As I walked along Weymouth beach, 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.

Despite having read other poignant 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 love being so close in modern day terms, but the only contact being through letters, some received weeks after they were written? 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 (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and threw herself into nursing. She did so in an effort to feel closer to the discomfort that 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 walk from their basic lodgings in all weathers, and worked 7am – 8pm, 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 sometimes work under similar conditions, 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. As an outspoken pacifist in her later years, she wanted to show 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 attend parties and events. But, those young people had to grow up too quickly, and their youthful endeavours made way for sorrow and loss.

I wonder what young people today would think of this, and whether they feel the same during the current pandemic. Do they feel that their best years have been hijacked by something bigger than them? Will they rise to the occasion, as the young people of the Great War did, sacrificing their comforts for the greater good? Will they be industrious and creative? A rise in applications to nursing degrees, and the plethora of art and music that erupted during lockdown show that this may be true to a certain degree. It’s hard not to feel empathy for young people in the midst of a pandemic. Cut off from their peers in that important time when the group and relationships are all. When personalities are being formed, and introspection is painful.

What of the very real threat of death and injury that existed during wartime, at home and abroad? I visited Lulworth Castle on my week away. There’s a MOD artillery range nearby, and they were on 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 soldiers stuck in muddy trenches were 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 our friends, children, partners or grandchildren. Petrified, traumatised and there due to a belief that heroism is exalted. But the reality was dying ignominiously in agony in a muddy field in France.

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 lead to an earlier death. You could say that there was already a pandemic in loneliness in the UK, with the Government taking it seriously enough to appoint a Minister for Loneliness in January 2018. Social distancing and lockdowns have exacerbated the feeling of disassociation. Although anyone can feel lonely, as a young or old person, this feeling is magnified.

For some people, there have been positives. I’ve got to know about my neighbours more due to a street WhatsApp thread, but there will be people living on the street who aren’t part of that, and live alone or are not au fait 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 a new job. It has an impact.

I don’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 experienced collectively before.

Do we rally together? Is there a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ that our politicians are so keen for us to emulate. Is clapping on our doorsteps enough to get us through this? 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, wash our hands and stay away from other people.

As a family member said recently, during lockdown, we were very good at rising to the occasion, as were people during the initial stages of the Great War. With no end in sight, as time goes on, however, we run out of energy to continue. Fatigue sets in, disillusion and suffering increases. We’re told we won’t have a normal Christmas, we can’t plan holidays or have things to look forward to. A lot of the country can’t even visit friends or family. When everything is taken away from us, how can we survive? How did Brittain and her contemporaries survive? They each found their own inner strength. It’ll be different for all of us. It sounds impossible, but people just like us have managed to move through acute suffering, and survived and life has continued. We may not be able to imagine a life after Covid, but there will be one. And if we are lucky, we’ll come out of it stronger, more resilient and with perfect sourdough.

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