Saturday, October 2, 2010


1. made hard; hardened.
2. insensitive; indifferent; unsympathetic

I recently read a fabulous book that grabbed my attention, entertained me and, best of all, made me think.  The book is Blackout by Connie Willis and it combines time travel, history and fiction.  It's set in 2060, when historians are able to travel back in time via "the net" and observe history, but never change it.  Three historians separately travel back to WWII scenes:  one as a servant in a manor home housing evacuated London children, another as a reporter to observe heroes during the Battle of Dunkirk and a third as a shopgirl to observe Londoners during the Blitz.  While I could spend time here telling you about what a good book this is and why you should read it, instead I'd like to write about how this book made me feel and one of the ugly things it made me realize about myself: I have a callous heart

I came to this realization as I read a scene in the book when Mike, the reporter at Dunkirk, hops off his boat, which is anchored offshore to take trapped British soldiers back across the English Channel to safety.  He dives below the boat to free the propeller, which is entangled with something.  Mike initially thinks a soldier's discarded coat has floated into the propeller's arms.  The channel is, at this point, full of debris ranging from clothing to shrapnel to far more disturbing things: like the body that Mike extracts from under the boat.  The body of a young soldier, one of many who died at Dunkirk.  A fictional soldier to stand in for thousands of real ones who fought bravely - or fought through sheer terror.  A fictional soldier who made me cry real tears as I stopped to think about the fact that these people were not just numbers.   They were people.

I know WWII history only in the broadest terms.  When my husband and I visited Germany eight years ago, we went to a WWII museum in Nuremberg.  I remember asking him questions about the war and our involvement in it.  He helped fill in some gaps, but I've never been interested enough in wars to spend much time dwelling there.  Reading this book made me realize that one reason for that is probably that it's just flat-out painful to dwell there.  So I keep this hardened, insensitive heart well away from images of fresh faced young men who died before their prime.  I keep my mind safe and secure in ignorance of the fact that the average length of service for an RAF pilot during WWII was three weeks.  Yes, three weeks.  Not because they moved on to other duties, but because that's how long they survived.  Doesn't that break your heart?

Now, horrible as this may sound, had Blackout dealt only with the loss of the lives of soldiers, it might not have penetrated my heart quite the way it did.  But the one-two punch of Dunkirk and the London Blitz kneaded my heart into greater sensitivity.  It seemed impossible to read about a young mother who nightly took her three daughters to shelters and read them fairy tales over the thundering bombs and not be touched.  The book's time travel element heightened my experience of the scene because Polly, the historian posing as shopgirl knew which tube stations would be bombed when, but didn't know who among her friends and acquaintances would live and who would die.  This left her nearly as shell shocked as the Londoners, despite her additional knowledge of the ultimate outcome of events.  Reading about the reality of an entire city being bombed with such regularity was staggering.  They slept in shelters every single night.  Their lives were surrounded by noise.  And not tame noise, but noises that were threatening - sirens, thuds, shrieks, even the all-clear siren.  It horrifies me and terrifies me to think about living that way.  Yet an entire city endured that rather than cave to Hitler.

It shouldn't take a novel to make me realize my heart is callous, but perhaps that's one function of good fiction: to make us look at things differently and see them in a new way.  Several days have elapsed since I read the scene from Dunkirk and began formulating this post in my mind.  Life (and a headache or two) intervened and kept me from writing.  But that was a good thing.  Because it gave me cause to realize that I choose to harden my heart often in order to protect it - it is not in any way limited to a tendency to avoid the harder passages in world history.  Daily, it seems the easier path to toughen myself up a bit in order to spare myself some pain.  But what joys are passing me by as I walk through life safely cocooned from life's lows - but also from life's highs?

Do I allow myself to celebrate life's little gifts like a new friend for K who plays so sweetly with her?  Or the season's first pot of chili, which is simmering on the stove as I write?  Do I allow myself to feel A's sadness as I share with her our decision to not let her dance in the Nutcracker this year?  Do I grieve alongside B for a mistake made at school?  Or do I take these things in stride and swiftly pull my heart away so that they are all viewed from a safe distance?

I don't want a callous heart.  I want to learn to carry life's bumps and bruises on my heart like badges of honor.  I want to likewise have a heart that glows bright with the beauty, the goodness, the blessings of everyday life.


Anonymous said...

In reference to the callous heart; if I allowed myself to open my heart to every patient and family that I encountered as a nurse, I would crumble and be unable to function. A certain amount of self-preservation is necessary in order to avoid being taken down by this world. It allows me to continue to minister to the ill and dying without dying FOR them...although I would if I had to. Christine

WordGirl said...

Christine - I totally get the need for people in your profession (or others like counseling) to have good boundaries and the ability to separate yourself from others' pain. I guess that's a line I'll have to learn to walk as I try to not be callous to anything and everything.

EJN said...

Thank you for broaching the question. It is a good one. It has me thinking.