Christina Patterson: What do we do with tragedy like the one in Japan?

We can't really tell anybody off. Sometimes you can do everything right, and everything can still go wrong
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The Independent Online

"We are," said Professor Brian Cox, "made of the same stuff as the stars." He was telling us about the universe. He was telling us, in fact, about the "wonders of the universe", in a TV series on the subject on Sunday night. He was telling us about quarks, and protons, and neutrons. He was telling us about hydrogen, and helium, and carbon. He was telling us that 14,000 million years ago there wasn't life in our universe, and then there was.

But he didn't tell us if stars weep. When, for example, the tectonic plates of the world shift, as they did five days ago, in a way that wasn't metaphorical but caused a coastline to shift three metres too, and the land breaks, and the ocean rises up, and buildings collapse, like matchstick houses that a child has trodden on, and homes, and cars, are swept away. He didn't tell us what the stars do in those situations, or if we should do the same as them.

He didn't tell us what we should do when we see a whole landscape made of rubble, where once there was a town, or when we see a wall of water where before there was only sky. He didn't tell us what we should do when we see a woman watching her baby being scanned for radiation that might give him cancer, or a man searching for relatives in a place where it's clear that no one has survived.

Perhaps he didn't need to. We are, after all, used to brushing our teeth, or gulping down tea, while listening to the news that the planet we live on has creaked, or cracked, or bubbled up, and that thousands of people who were brushing their teeth, or gulping down tea, now aren't. Sometimes, when we hear this, or see the images of towns destroyed, or villages washed away, we find it quite hard to think that the people now wailing at what they've lost are people like us. Their lives are terrible now, but they were often terrible before. We didn't want to know about their terrible lives before. We didn't want to know that they were living in shacks, on as much a year as we might earn in a week, because wedidn't feel we could do much about it, just as we didn't feel we could do much about the collapsed buildings now.

What we could do was reel off a credit card number, thinking that it might at least help to build a new shack, if it wasn't (as it often was) stolen by a government. If we were journalists, we could write about how terrible it was that the government of the country hadn't built proper buildings, or had taken bribes so that building regulations could be ignored, or that they hadn't installed proper warnings, or that they didn't seem to care about the people whose homes, and lives, had been destroyed. We couldn't write about how terrible it was that the universe didn't seem to care about these people, because the universe didn't read columns in newspapers (though there wasn't, to be fair, much evidence that governments did either). And doing these things might make us feel better.

But when this happens in one of the most sophisticated countries on the planet, what do we do? When we see photos of children who have died, and parents who have died, scattered among the debris of the buildings that were their homes, and when we see giant characters carved into the land which are, we're told, a plea for food, and rescue workers begging for body bags, what do we do?

Perhaps we can give our credit card number to the third biggest economy in the world, but perhaps it doesn't need it. We can't really tell the Japanese government off for not building buildings that were strong enough to withstand an earthquake, because the buildings were strong enough to withstand an earthquake. They just weren't strong enough to withstand an earthquake and a tsunami. We can't tell them off for their warning systems, which were very good, or for their rescue operations, which are very good, or for their nuclear power stations, which were built about as safely as you can build them. We can't really tell them off for anything. Sometimes, you can't. Sometimes, you can do everything right and everything can still go wrong.

Last week, I went to an Oxfam lunch on "women and poverty". Someone said they thought it would be a good idea to get a story about an Afghan woman in a magazine. When I asked why, the people round the table looked shocked. But I didn't know how people were meant to respond to the story about the Afghan woman. Whether they were meant to urge the Government to send more soldiers to fight for a country where she couldn't be stoned to death, or talk to the Taliban so she wouldn't be bombed, or give some money to a charity so she could feed her children while they were being bombed. I told them that I read stories about Afghan women nearly every day. We all read stories about wars, and suffering, and accidents, and disaster, every day.

Sometimes, there's hope of a happy ending, of kinds. The Chilean miners got out. The New Zealand ones didn't. The Arab Spring looked like a happy ending, until the dictator we said was our friend, and then wasn't, started winning again, and the world didn't know what to do. We don't know if sending some of our men to get killed there would make it a happy ending. We don't know what will make Afghanistan a happy ending. We don't know what will make Ivory Coast a happy ending, but we do know that it won't involve us.

I don't know what we do with all these accidents, and wars, and disasters. I suppose it's better that we give our credit card numbers, where it might make a difference, than that we don't, and that we try to understand about things like oil and dictators, so that when our governments try to make friends with dictators, and the dictators then start killing their own people, we can decide whether we want our governments to be friends with dictators again. But I don't know what we do about the disasters where no one has done anything wrong.

In Doris Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook, the central character has a kind of breakdown. Instead of the book she's meant to be writing, she just starts collecting newspaper cuttings, and pasting them on the pages where she'd planned to write. The character was, said Lessing in an introduction to a later edition, overwhelmed by the "problems of war, famine, poverty", and the plight of "the tiny individual who was trying to mirror them". The book was written in 1962. Before the internet, before Twitter, and before a 24-hour news cycle which offers no release from a steady flow of gloom.

"About suffering" said WH Auden in his poem "Musée des Beaux Arts", "they were never wrong, /The Old Masters; how well, they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". Auden knew, as Lessing does, and as the "Old Masters" did, that this, in the end, is the choice. We either collapse under the weight of it, or we carry on eating, or opening the window, and doing the tiny things we can do that might make sure that other people can, too.

Auden talks, in the poem, about Bruegel's Icarus; about a man flying too close to the star we call the sun. He talks about the "expensive delicate ship" that must have seen "something amazing", that must, in fact, have seen "a boy falling out of the sky". And he talks of how the ship – like, perhaps, the brave human race on a planet that sometimes make a mockery of its struggles – "sailed calmly on".;