It wasn’t a perfect comedy routine, but for a thing prepared in a high school tuck shop queue half an hour earlier and delivered by a teenager whose voice was breaking it wasn’t terrible either. I’d got some laughs and now, as my oral meandered towards its climax, I was looking forward to nailing the final punchline.
Just then the classroom door was barged open and a girl stood there, choking on sobs, her face contorted with grief. Everybody stared. With a physical effort she controlled her crying long enough to announce to the class that somebody – I couldn’t catch the name – had died.
For a moment the room was completely silent. Then children began to put their hands over their open mouths and sob. Some wept openly and loudly, others gritted their teeth and made no sound. Though I still stood at the front of the class I could make out whispers: they knew the boy from church; he had been ill; he had been adored.
I remember clearly what happened next because it was so surreal. I turned to my teacher and said, quietly: “So obviously I can’t finish.” She replied: “No, please go on.” I gaped at her, unable to believe that she wanted me to tell one last joke to a class of bereaved children with their heads on their arms. But she nodded encouragingly, and so I said one more sentence and sat down.
This week, as our world seems to fill with grief for dead children, it feels grossly inappropriate to write something with a punchline. Too often the commentariat encourages itself to “please go on”, to deliver polished, self-serving prose over the sound of sobbing; but how can anyone describe or discuss in civil language the obscenities in Gaza and Ukraine? How can there be any response but despair? And if one does despair, should one remain quiet, leaving the discussion to those who are informed? Better not to write anything at all, perhaps.
Over the weekend the internet disappeared under a dark cloud of misanthropic bleakness. Social media, usually the home of bonny and affirming narcissism, was adamant: our species was a plague. Hundreds of thousands asked: where is our humanity? It was tempting to find consolation in cynicism, to reply: “It’s right here, where it’s always been. This is how we roll. Humanity is only naturally good at making two things: babies and war.”
But perhaps before we write ourselves off entirely we might look at our feelings and discover, hidden behind the despairing surrender, a glow of hope: perhaps the shock and soul-sickness we feel are not symptoms of a ruined species but rather evidence of something better.
If we looked at the smoke rising over Shejaia or at the wreckage in that cornfield and felt nothing – or, like some online psychopaths, made jokes about it – then I would agree that it’s time to check out. But that so many millions are aghast, feeling both nauseated and exhausted by the cruelty in the world, might suggest that we believe humanity in its natural state is better than this.
Yes, we slide into barbarism shockingly quickly and with depressingly little resistance. We trumpet our independence of thought and action even as we hurry to get into lockstep with the powerful shadows who feed us our opinions. We forget, far too quickly; determined as we are to live in the potential of the future rather than to pick our way through the rubble of the past.
But in recognising the presence of wickedness as it ranges across the planet we owe it to ourselves to remember that goodness, too, is everywhere; even in the epicentre of brutality. It is in the courage and selflessness of the paramedics in Gaza. It is in the care being taken by investigators in Grabove. It is in the tears of people carefully placing flowers on doorsteps in Holland and Kuala Lumpur. It is in the countless unseen and unreported acts of altruism, of kindness, patience, tolerance – of love – that do not make it into news reports because they cannot be used as currency.
I don’t really know anything for sure and after last week I know even less. But I think that we have held this darkness and this light in ourselves since we first became human. Our religious myths are founded on that delicate balance on which we all pivot: the struggle between good and evil, between that god and that demon that we found in ourselves a million years ago, and who face off from time to time.
They are both part of us. The existence of one implies the existence of the other. We can’t forget the bad. But we should try, very hard, to remember the good.
First published in The Times and TimesLive