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How are we?

Candida Clark
17 September 2001

It seems to me that one of the greatest troubles accompanying the physical fact of conflict each day more imminent, is the psychological prison terrorism would have us believe in. That would be terrorism’s triumph: for us to think within parametres not only not of our making, but that are grounded on a falsehood – that the world is a world of threats, and hopelessness; that we must accept the crippling limitations that persistent worry brings.

Terrorism’s triumph would be to make us believe that our imaginations no longer offer freedom. And by this, I do not mean escapism, or any kind of escape from reality. I mean imagination’s greatest joy and value: to show us reality more clearly, to bring it not only into sharper focus, but to reveal it more nearly as it is – astonishing, chock-full of wonder to which we’re anyway too often blind.

To be told that our reality is to be shadowed over by fear, is to say that our imaginations no longer offer freedom but are little more than a reflection of whatever fear terrorism projects. But then look at the people of New York – damned if they’ll give up on their everyday, constitutionally enshrined freedoms, already starting to declare their minds to be terror-free zones. It’ll be their greatest triumph if they succeed.

The question now is the extent to which our imaginations can remain free. This is the only way we’ll be able to ask the right questions – not merely those in response to a dogmatic premise in no way of our choosing. The premise of terrorism is not a question, it is a falsity, masquerading as a given, unexamined fact.

Meanwhile, outside my window the sky is a miracle of early September blue. There are few clouds, and opposite, the tree is on the cusp of turning yellow – not golden but bright yellow, turning that way as it does every year at this time. From a few hundred yards away, there’s the sound of children being collected from school: a mayhem of exceptional beauty that starts off like a great rowdy celebration of littleness as they all congregate in the playground, before their parents, most of them on bikes, pick them up, slot them into their grand plastic chariots, (often with flags so that they can be seen in traffic), and bear them away home. Then the sound becomes scattered, lovely with the intimacy of parent to child.

Some of them walk home, and we watch the children as they go by, acting out whatever effortless fantasy has sprung upon them – to be three-foot high kings, ballet dancers, spies, villains, prancing along in an immaculate bliss of deliberation, being who they wish to be, in the perfect freedom of their imaginations.

It’s a kind of lesson: look how much imagination rests like a wish over all points of change and growth.

I’m reminded of a few weeks ago, and our local baker shaking his head, grimacing, telling us how much he dislikes the silence of out-of-school time, the holidays that he says he finds faintly unnerving: it’s my favourite sound in the world, he told us, the sound of those children playing – I can’t wait for them to come back. I miss them.

I mention these things for a number of reasons. It seems that anyone writing anything at all at this time is in a way obliged to state their business: what position are they writing from, what do they have to offer, what experience, help or understanding. And in a very particular way, to state our business at this time is often to explain the sum total of all that we wish to say. It is the extent of many people’s dogmas: to confess to being a mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter, relation, co-worker, city-dweller, fellow American, empathetic citizen from the other side of the world.

So I confess: I am someone who loves the sound of children in play; who finds the scrap of world I can see from my window incredibly beautiful; who loves. Everything else follows from here. Nothing else is of particular consequence.

Just so, so many people have now been thrown back into their most elemental selves, proud to confess themselves to be essentially the thing that binds them to another, or to their fellow man or woman.

And so this simple truth becomes apparent: that for most people, to be human is defined absolutely in terms of how they are connected to one another, and to the world. The democratic instinct, so it now seems, sits snug alongside many people’s profoundest sense of themselves: it is the glue that binds them to their fellow, the thing that projects them out of themselves and allows them to see themselves in the world as they wish to be – free. We are, in a vital sense, defined – and happily, essentially – by everything that connects us here on earth. Everything that divides – nationality, race, religion, gender, age – is stripped away. What remains is little more than the thin skin that separates each one of us, our point of contact with the world and each other, and right now this is definable as a question: how are we?

How are we when we hear the sound of children leaving school? When we see one another? When we look out at the world? When we think of what tomorrow will be like? The answer, so often over this last week, has been full of hope, love, and the fact of connectedness far beyond the reach of the personal. The world has been shrunk, and in being diminished, its beauty is ever more brazenly apparent – even now, even amongst the people of New York and Washington. We have all seen it.

To deny the vision of hell we’ve been presented with, and instead to struggle to create the nearest approximation to heaven on earth is an act of immense imaginative effort and belief. It is to see the real beauty of the earth around us, as it truly is. It is the reverse of delusion. It is clear-sightedness. This struggle to see clearly and then to cherish all that we see in the hope that we can make it even better is what dignifies us as human beings. The impossibility of heaven-on-earth’s realisation is its magnetic wonder: we will fail, but that failure is everything, because it is an exertion of immense courage and humility. And because we can come so damn close let’s split the difference.

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