‘He came in and said ‘Go home Paki’. Our local newsagent told me this week about the words that had been spoken to her. She is actually a British citizen of Indian heritage via Kenya. She and her husband work long hours and provide an important and friendly service for our largely white community.
I wonder what it feels like to hear that?
I wonder what it feels like to be in an intensive care unit knowing that the staff have to fight for your life because you have no fight left in you?
I wonder what it feels like to go to work every day knowing that the Covid-19 virus is lurking, even rampant among your patients, students, customers or clients?
I wonder what it feels like to have worked proudly for British Airways for 23 years only to be told now that demand for flights has dropped so much that you will be made redundant in a month or two?
I wonder what it feels like to be caring for a person developing Alzheimer’s during lockdown?
I wonder what it feels like to be living in the far-off country of dementia?
I wonder what it feels like to have a loved one snatched away by a random act of violence?
I wonder what it feels like not to be able to walk out of your own front door for a breath of air in hot weather?
I wonder what it feels like to see your young adult child fly the nest at such a difficult time as this?
I wonder what it feels like not to know where the next meal is coming from?
These are not random hypothetical questions. They are questions facing people in our own narrow circle of acquaintance. We do not even have to go out of the street to encounter most of them.
It is important to wonder.
There are many important questions in life which cannot be resolved by a Google search. There’s a danger that the act of wondering will become a lost art. Wondering what it feels like to have another person’s experience is a good step forward towards what we call empathy.
It’s not the same as knowing intellectually that someone else must be suffering. It’s a knowing that comes from somewhere quite different and much deeper than that.
Hearing about other people’s suffering is a dangerous business. We are all tempted to say, ‘I know how you feel. I…’
In fact, we can never know quite how another person’s pain is playing out in the complex tissue of their biography. Relating our own experience of pain will not necessarily be a comfort. It may just mean that we have not really listened. It may mean that we have not yet properly come to terms with our own experience. It may mean that somehow, in that moment, we are more interested in our own pain than in theirs.
It’s important then to keep on wondering. Wondering, marvelling at the triumphs of the human spirit in so many difficult circumstances.
Wondering is an important human skill – and its exercise has never been more important.