By Chris Cork
It was an hour or so later that I came to realise the import of what I had said. There was a conversation with a colleague about the stream of bombings that have hit Peshawar and how we comment on them in the press. We were trying to decide what we should write about a particular blast and came to the conclusion that if the number of dead was not particularly high then there was not much new that could be said. My off-the-cuff remark at the end of the conversation was to the effect that unless there were fifty or more murdered in an incident, it would not pass my own benchmark. Sitting at my desk later, the awfulness of what I had said — the sheer insensitivity of it — gave me a sharp smack around the ear and led me to the reflections that have become this week’s comment on the world I live and work in.
Looking back five years to the start of these top-right-corner-on-Mondays musings, there was a lightness of tone and touch that continued up until about the time of the declaration of the state of emergency and the killing of Benazir Bhutto — since then they have become progressively darker and more pessimistic. I was usually able to find something in the week that could be spun with dry humour; something positive about what I had experienced that would lighten the grimness of the columns that surrounded mine. Finding that lightness today is a struggle, exposed as I — and everybody else who writes in commentary on our life and affairs — am to the daily diet of horror that we consume.
Those who are engaged in work that exposes them to life’s darker side are known to develop psychological defence mechanisms, filters that allow emergency service workers or doctors, and nurses, soldiers and aid-workers at the sharp end to distance themselves from the horror of what they see and have to do. Often the mechanisms are to be found as ‘black humour’ — jokes about things that we would never joke about outside the circle of confidentiality that extends inside our work group. Soldiers are particularly prone to this, and from the work I did in the UK, I know that ambulance-men and firemen do the same. They use black humour to insulate themselves from the daily realities which could overwhelm them emotionally were the insulation not there. Some I have known retreat into alcohol as their insulation, others use drugs. My retreat is into the world of plastic modeling, making the little planes that hang on my wall, an activity far removed from life at the keyboard.
No matter what the coping strategies we devise for ourselves, there is an inevitable ‘blunting’ of our sensitivities. You may think, Dear Reader, that there is not much by way of stress attached to typing for a few hours every day — and you would be right. It’s not the typing that brings the burden; it’s what you have to do by way of gathering the mental material that makes the words on the page meaningful to the reader. The immersion in the daily grind of bombs and murder and conflict and corruption that makes the paste that sticks together the words you read at the breakfast table. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, I choose to do this — but it leads me to reflect that if the experience is blunting and desenitising me, then what is it doing to the other 170 million odd people around me? If it touches me, then it touches them too, and not everybody can afford the luxury of building little model aeroplanes.