My last column was to end differently. I wasn’t brave, and let Min. Cuffie’s public-servant secretary divert me. I’m going to try to finish.
In writing about forging one nation out of this small-but-overwhelming-in-worth” place, where different bodies jostle together, I’ve often held up the idea of “boundless faith”.
A Guyanese colleague completed suicide year-end. I’ve told friends how enabling her action has proven in my scuffles with mid-life and meaning. They’ve blinked; the conversation has continued. I found myself in the middle of a Carnival fete, feet moving to Dil-E-Nadan, fingers messaging a psychiatrist friend how much, unbearable pain I was in. Call me tomorrow, I begged. I rose at 6am, went on live TV. No call came—that day or the next.
It’s not that folks like Zenita don’t ask for help, I shared on Facebook. When we do, people don’t take us seriously. Or themselves are too wounded to be of use. My post generated lots of likes. Zero calls.
Recent headlines here linked national mental health to legion gun violence. I’d imagined another violence: the daily ways we don’t “get through”, the minister’s secretary hangs up, simple things that ought to be in place aren’t, a gendered slight happens, someone is thoughtless. Structural violence permeates our colonial-heritage institutions, designed to violate natural justice, and ideologies, to make indignity seem normal and tolerable. Add to that a loss of certainty in faith and gender that once ordered our world, global economic instability, climate change, growing state weakness in the face of all this, wanton, cyclical corruption of officials, and the new season of disappointment, 21 weeks after the election, as it dawns that we are back on the same political treadmill, just a different brand.
Perhaps our most urgent problems aren’t crime, oil prices, meaningless curriculum, or parenting; but, more fundamentally, the crisis of each other. A school system designed to make losers of all but a few, an overheated consumer economy and its competitive stratification, the narcosub-economy’s lure of importance and ownership—all misshape our sense of worth. In a natural environment where myriad opportunities exist to stand still and wonder, we are consistently called on to move, and move on from the latest slight or wound. There’s little time, culture or structures to sit, heal, repair. We don’t take others’ distress seriously till they splash it all over the floor or jump up and down like a three-year-old’s tantrum. Even three-year-olds we don’t listen to; we beat them into stuffing their discomfort. Vulnerability is shameful. Bullying toughens you for an unfair world. Cruelty to nature, animals, children, partners is normal. Sometimes as sexual pleasure.
I sense that my colleague was deeply ashamed of her domestic abuse. I felt no shame in seeking help, however. But everyone—save two friends, in New York and Barbados—assumed I was resiliently coping. We’ve all learned that resilience, to push violence out of consciousness, away from where it feels painful, with picong or self-mockery, Carnival or rum—cultural implements forged to wash away all the unlovely.
Before my searing middleclass all-inclusive-fete rage, I’d always remarked about people who stand in line at the bank behind you or ride in the maxi seat next to yours, normel-normel, and go home to kill their wives, children and selves. Their deep sense that the taking of life is both an act of despair and a way to punish everyone who never listened or heard or noticed, lash back against every injustice or hurt. The property disputes resolved by burning down the house.
I do not think these people had never asked for help.
Perhaps we do have the tools. And they are simple. Just like we’re taught to compete at every turn, we can all learn to care, create emotionally intelligent communities who know how to listen, develop common skills at healing. Prioritise clinical skill over booksense and compliance in training care professionals. Recognise how every relationship holds the power to heal or harm. That many effective models exist for communities of care, and it’s everyday loving relationships where we grow and heal more powerfully than clinical ones. How men can learn to be accountable in intimacy.
We can centre the practice of tenderness and regard. But we must understand how the social structures we’ve inherited do exactly the opposite, and cling less eagerly to their rituals.
This column, my 50th, marks a milestone in a two-year run. I want to celebrate the Guardian’s boldness in continuing to host it. I hope my unconventional words about citizenship, governance, family, consumer rights, masculinity, sexuality—and how hard it is to love—have helped show why justice matters, that agency is possible, and the beauty in honesty. Some things writing won’t heal. I call us all to tend to those. I am off to tend to mine.