‘the still, sad music of humanity’….Some thoughts and feelings during an awful week for our world…

Something I have learned – the hard way – is that some of us are more porous to the experiences of others at an intuitive, non-rational level, than others. This hyper-sensitivity is a gift in some contexts: it can ensure an appropriate, compassionate response to one’s fellow beings, thereby enriching one’s own life, as well as being useful to one’s fellows. Having worked all my life in contexts where sensitivity is essential to being an effective teacher and helper, I can personally affirm the value of such a gift.

Prisoners of Conscience window, Salisbury Cathedral
Prisoners of Conscience window, Salisbury Cathedral

photo: Anne Whitaker

But the gift has a dark shadow. It means difficulty in creating the boundaries that are at times necessary to protect oneself from being invaded by others’ pain, others’ woundedness, others’ unconsciously destructive energies…and the pain of the world…

I have been feeling really low since yesterday when the dreadful news of the Tunisian beach massacre burst on us all, following on other horrors this last week. In this, of course, I am not alone.

I feel as though the dark pain at the core of my own being, old long-accepted pain which most of the time just lies there, like rotting old leaves at the bottom of a deep pond, has risen to meet and join with the world’s pain. Normally I keep those feelings to myself, sharing them only with one or two trusted loved ones. But today, I thought I would write about it, and share a personal experience from a long time ago which  also evoked for me  ‘the still, sad music of humanity’, in poet William Wordsworth’s poignant words.

Calais, France, Summer 1990

Twenty five years ago whilst fulfilling our mother’s wish for her seventieth birthday that my brother and I  should take her to visit her older brother’s war grave in Calais, I had a shattering experience of being plugged into the world’s pain which I have never forgotten.

 Le Touret
Le Touret

Le Touret Memorial (Le Touret Military Cemetery)

A radio officer aboard HMS “Achieve”, her brother’s ship was sunk in May 1945, off the French coast, shortly before the end of the Second World War. His was the only body from the “Achieve” ever found. Having managed to swim ashore, he died of hypothermia on the beach before anyone could rescue him.

My husband Ian’s diary for Friday 5th May 1990 records ‘Annie a bit nervous about trip to France tomorrow’. Had I known just how fraught it would be, I’d have been hysterical…

The overnight return trip from Glasgow to Calais turned out to be pretty harrowing, owing to our time miscalculation based on erroneous information concerning distances provided by the travel agent, whose cheery “it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from Paris to Calais !” turned out to be two and a half hours longer than he had told us. We finally managed to get to the cemetery, stressed and exhausted from our 6 am start, just as a churlish and unfriendly French attendant was slowly pushing the gates shut for the night.

My choosing to burst into tears to evoke his sympathy rather than punch him, accompanied by my miraculous recall of French, probably saved us from being denied entry on what turned out to be our only opportunity. For the cemetery – bizarrely and unexpectedly – was closed on the following morning, a Sunday, only during the weekend of our visit.

But my mother did find her brother’s grave, and we were all shattered by the experience. I will never forget my brother  and I standing at a respectful distance to give her privacy, keeping an eye on the burly, scowling attendant, as she hung the silver celtic cross she had brought with her over the right hand corner of a small, plain gravestone. Head bowed, she wept quietly to herself. She had loved her brother dearly and deeply. 

Fortunately, suspecting we would need privacy, my brother and I had booked us a room each. On retiring to bed after dinner, I began to weep, and simply could not stop until exhaustion eventually brought sleep. It was no ordinary grief: I was aware once again of my personal sorrow becoming a channel  for ‘the still, sad music of humanity’….in Wordsworth’s  poignant phrase: this time, it was for the heartbreak and waste of that terrible war…

It is seventy years since the end of the Second World war, and humanity’s track record on applying restraint to the reptilian part of our brain in order to diminish the impulse to torture, maim and murder those whose values, beliefs, race and gender differ from our own has not appreciably improved as the twenty-first century unfolds. We are unimaginably ingenious, brilliant, when it comes to applying our intelligence for example to the quest  to decode the human genome:  been there, done that! – or to find the Higgs Boson – ditto.

When, oh when, are we going to find a way to stop slaughtering one another?


800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

15 thoughts on “‘the still, sad music of humanity’….Some thoughts and feelings during an awful week for our world…

  1. Thank you for sharing, Anne. The usual words of consolation feel false at the moment, but my heart is filled with empathy.

    1. Thank you, Leslie. There are indeed times when words of consolation do not reach deeply enough. What is needed is empathy – a standing silently beside one another, acknowledging the tragic, wounded dimensions of human life. But Joy is always round the corner if we are lucky, if we look, if we survive…faith in life despite its awful dimensions is surely what keeps us going, collectively and individually, at grim times…

  2. Many Thanks Anne ,always appreciated , your thoughts are pearls and diamonds of Wisdom ,thanks for the ebook (the moon’s Nodes in action) it is actually an indepth Study and spiritual guide.

  3. Thank you for sharing so heartfully from the leafy-depths about your experience in Calais, Anne. And some of us will surely understand what it is to be so sensitive to the still sad music of humanity, and to become a vessel or channel for it. I recall Trungpa Rinpoche said that the Shambhala spiritual warriors were open to the world’s deep sorrows, which is the only way to be open, too, the world’s great joy. Your sharing here reminds me of that beautiful balance. And yes, may it be so that more and more are restored to their (our) heart’s empathy. Blessings, Jamie

    1. Many thanks, Jamie – and for this reminder of Chogyam Trungpa’s deep understanding of the fundamental dialectic of sorrow and joy at the very core of life itself. It was Buddhist wisdom that, more than anything else, got me through my ‘dark night of the soul’ between 2001-8 and left me eventually feeling deeply enriched by what for a long time felt like an experience which nearly annihilated me…with love Anne

  4. I love reading your posts Anne. My heart is broken, too, for my pain, the pain of people, and the pain of the Earth and its other inhabitants. I’ve been praying for Faith and Grace

  5. Ann, my heart squeezed tight with sadness as I read your post.  I am rarely around televisions, and I have been basically offline for days, so this was the first I heard of the tragedy.  I pulled up the Yahoo ‘top news stories’ and was disgusted to see there were sports and fashion headlines beside other newsworthy stories, but nothing about Tunisia.  I rarely see any Nepal updates, either.  Where oh where is the world’s empathy? Like you, I grieve for the state our world is in, for the evil and cruel people that use innocents to show their hatred.    I also grieve for those with hardened souls that seem desensitized to the world’s violence. I identified with your story about grief at the cemetary; long ago a similar grief washed over me, triggered by a very minor event at the petite cemetary where my mother was buried.  I wept for another half hour, and thought I must have been purging 10-years of swallowed tears… Perhaps your explanation plays into my scene as well. Thank you for sharing this multi-faceted post and addressing your concern about humanity. 

    1. Many thanks, Lisa. Your empathy is much appreciated – both for our collective suffering and my personal experience of being drawn into that energy field through my porousness. Thanks for sharing yours. There are probably many of us who have similar experiences of the collective but choose to keep such things private- as I usually do.

      I hope you are recovering from your illness – slowly maybe, but surely…

  6. Having watched both the World War II series and The Pacific, I was deeply and profoundly touched by the interviews with war veterans at the end of the series. The memories were still vivid in their minds and they wept openly over the loss of comrades.Sadly the devastating effects of war are lifelong.

  7. Yes, Bev, they certainly are. As a therapist, I have worked at times with clients whose parents escaped the Holocaust, losing many family members. The pain and damage of that terrible event certainly in my experience has reverberated down the generations…

  8. While this is off on a somewhat different tack, I found myself appalled over the past days by the responses of some on Twitter to our Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. I saw innumerable posts using the #LoveWins hashtag, while posting truly obscene, vile, and sometimes violent, comments about those who opposed the decision. It was a shocking example of the divide that no doubt runs through us all, and a reminder that arrogance and a desire for revenge in victory never bring healing.

    Your point about sometimes needing to protect ourselves from the worst in the world is a valid one. And, in this age of social media mobs, allowing ourselves to be drawn into such name-calling and insults can be so destructive: even if we don’t engage in them ourselves.

    I’ve always found that the best antidote to the griefs of the world at large is to do something for someone closer at hand. I can’t undo WWII — or any of the wars currently raging around us! — but I can hold my tongue, offer a kind gesture, or offer companionship to someone in pain. As one of my dear mentors once said, “Do what you can do, not what you can’t.”

    1. Thanks so much for this, Linda. I use the same antidote as you – and feel sure that most of us do the same. We also need to remember, especially in dark times, that there is still a great deal of ordinary goodness, kindness and humanity present in our troubled world.

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