Many of us – those who have never been soldiers, or lived through wars or hurricanes or tsunamis – have not seen darker days than these.
How do we get through it?
Everyone has inner resources, but some people have more than others. In some people, it will bring out the worst; but from others, we will see the very best.
Many years ago, when I first learned to write fiction, it was drummed into me again and again by my teachers; put your characters in a crisis.
Because you only learn what people are really made of when you put them under stress.
As in fiction, so in life.
We will all find out what we are made of right now.
So, what is it we need, what will give us the ability not only to survive, but to survive in a way that makes people say, when it’s all over:
I wish I had been like them.
I was an ambulance officer for thirteen years. From the start, one of the things that was clear to me, watching emergency doctors and other medics battling to save people’s lives, or police dealing with violent and chaotic situations, was that some were better at it than others.
The ones who did it best, and also suffered the least stress from the job, had one common characteristic. Yes, they were team players, and they genuinely cared about others. But they were also tough. Tough on the inside.
What made them that way?
Seemed to me it was their sense of humour.
No, they didn’t make knock-knock jokes at car crashes. Nor was their humour offensive, because there is nothing in the least bit funny about people suffering and dying.
They just knew when to use humour to mitigate the worst of situations and help others around them cope.
If you have ever seen Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, you’ll already understand this. The movie is about an Italian Jew who is sent to Auschwitz in WW2 with his son. He persuades him that it is all just a funny game to help him survive the horror of it.
At the end, when the Germans are slaughtering everyone, he hides him from the guards, but afterwards he himself is captured. As a soldier marches Benigni around the corner to execute him, he looks over his shoulder and manages a wink and an outrageous funny walk for the boy, to make him laugh and keep him calm.
The film was based on the experiences of Rubino Romeo Salmoni, who later wrote: “I came out of Auschwitz alive, I have a wonderful family, I celebrated my golden wedding anniversary, I have 12 splendid grandchildren – I think I can say I ruined Hitler’s plan for me.”
Another example: it’s no secret that I am not a fan of Ronald Regan, either as an actor or as a politician. But the one thing I do admire him for is his demeanour after he was shot by John Hinckley Jnr in 1981. As he was wheeled into the operating room, facing death from catastrophic internal bleeding, he removed his oxygen mask and said to the waiting doctors: “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.”
A last example, from fiction: one of the most searing anti-war novels ever published was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Heller’s writing showed that laughter can be more powerful than a swimming pool of tears. His central character, a pilot in WW2, goes to his commander and asks to be relieved from duty.
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
Anthropologists tell us that humans used laughter to communicate, millions of years before we developed language. Babies as young as 17 days old have been observed laughing. Even children born blind and deaf know how to do it.
It’s basic to our nature. Laughing in the midst of stress helps us cope and there are physiological reasons for that.
In 2011 the American Heart Association conducted a study testing the effect of laughter on 79 participants. They found that fifteen minutes of laughter lowered blood pressure readings in every one of them.
An added bonus: when you laugh you also activate T-cells, the specialized immune system cells that help ward off sickness while also reducing stress hormone levels.
It’s how we cope.
The one creation I am most proud of in my own working life is DI Charlie George, because he reflects everything I admired while working with emergency responders. Charlie’s a team player, but his dark and gritty sense of humour, in dealing with the daily horrors of working in a murder squad, sets him apart and makes him an heroic figure.
It’s what makes him tough. It’s how he survives.
I’ll never meet most of you reading this, and I’ll never understand what you’re going through right now. But like our heroes, in life and in fiction, try and find reason to smile; not because things are funny right now, but because they’re really not.
That’s heroic. And it will help you get through.
And if you can’t laugh, try singing on the balcony, like they do in Italy. I tried it last night, and my voice is so bad, someone threw a toilet roll at me.
You see? Every cloud has a silver lining.
Stay well. Things will get better.
Until next week.