A Crisis of Insight

Catherine Masterman reflects on moments of crisis and the perspective they bring.

How on earth do you hold world-shaking events in your mind, as you continue daily life and deal with tiny domestic preoccupations?

Do we shut out the world and focus on the immediate? Rendered powerless by the sheer scale of the crisis, do we seek to protect ourselves and our children from the accompanying fear? Or are we so distracted by what’s going on, we bring it into every interaction, and the crisis blocks out any sense of normality. Most of us probably hover somewhere in the middle, veering towards each extreme at different moments as we wrestle with what on earth it means for our lives.

There is nothing new about wars, conflict, violence, fleeing populations and despair. But we are not always confronted with their reality and they are not in our continent. There was no seismic shift in the twenty-first century that makes us immune from disease, war or natural disasters – the last few years have shown that in spades. The media is flooded with stories of personal experience that bring home to different people how readily places could be exchanged. Confronted by my latest tiny domestic drama on the school run, I had in mind the mother who told her children as they fled for their lives ‘you can take one toy’.

In some ways the nearness and severity of the crisis is akin to the emotions I remember experiencing a minor earthquake in Greece, or being in London during the 7/7 bombings. Like protagonists in a film racing through the dark who see their way ahead suddenly lit up by a flash of lightning, or the moment in where Neo sees The Matrix for the first time, such existential crises can, if we permit them, bring flashes of insight into how we are living and what really matters. It might not render us any less powerless about the current crisis, but it can re-orient the way in which we view the choices that we do have.

As a parent my tiny domestic pre-occupation is currently caught up in secondary school admissions process and SATS. Both feel like an abyss of worry and stress that I could easily tumble into and, if I don’t, carry a sense of guilt that I don’t care enough. As the mother of girls, the woes and worries of shifting friendships, upcoming parties, lack of upcoming parties, are a ready topic for any car journey (or excuse to prolong bedtime). Schools, results, friendships; these things all clearly matter and I have choices about whether and how I intervene. Those choices give me the illusion that I have some kind of control over the outcome. If nothing else, current world events write in the sky that any sense of control is exactly that: an illusion.

The world is just as beautiful and just as broken regardless of the circumstances we face. The fundamentals of our lives remain the same; we just don’t always see them and allow them to be crowded out. We could all articulate what we consider most important in our lives- and yet a snapshot of our thoughts might well reveal a different story.

If the flash of insight has an impact, it will be deeply individual. Are we investing effort in causes that are worthwhile, or just addressing minor inconveniences or small institutional failings? Are the grievances, hurts and hang-ups that cloud our relationships really worth the cost? What are we putting off doing and why? Are we parenting to protect our children from reality or prepare them for it? Are they really best served by our intense investment of every detail of their education and interests? Can we channel the compassion and empathy for those suffering in the current crisis into a determination to make longer term, potentially harder choices about our Western lifestyles that might help prevent crises elsewhere?

In the response to the crisis, the desire to ‘do something’ will be strong, (even though, beyond financial donations to major appeals, good intentions will not always be matched by useful impact).  The risk is that an immediate response crowds out the opportunity to address the deeper questions.

Instead, (or as well,) why not pause for a moment, capture the flash of insight, and see what it brings to light.

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