It’s interesting to note that in a world where people constantly claim anyone with a conscience or a complaint is being a “special snowflake”, stoicism is still pushed as an ideal, and largely adhered to, whenever there’s a hugely terrifying incident. It’s the stiff upper lip as a call to arms, the idea that true bravery is demonstrated through unblinking forbearance and the “keep calm and carry on-ification” of modern life.
But it’s not the only way.
I understand why, after the attack on Westminster Bridge earlier this year and the recent tragedy at Manchester Arena, the message was that the best way to stop the terrorists is to carry on as if nothing has happened. There’s a lot to be said for clambering straight back on the horse once it has hurled you out into the meadow. We are, most of the time, encouraged to talk about our feelings in an effort, for example, to break down stigma surrounding mental health, and to avoid PTSD taking hold, when something happens to us personally. And yet when a large crisis occurs in which we may not be directly involved but experiencing as spectators, on the periphery of the action but the heart of the emotion, the preferred coping mechanism becomes “getting on with it”.
The language used is powerful, emotive and inspirational. It encourages pride, it swells our chests and injects us with a kind of euphoria to keep us going, like a mildly trippy painkiller or the collective buzz of experiencing a huge happy event together. There are vigils, yes, which go some way toward helping us express our emotions, but the general message is one of being unbowed, unbeaten, resilient, strong.
But I sometimes wonder where this strength is expected to come from.
Falling to pieces is not forbidden, or shameful, but it is not encouraged. And this is a problem for those who do not find that resilience comes naturally all the time. It is not automatic. The brute strength you may have had after the death of a loved one may desert you when faced with a terrorist attack in the place you call home. You are puzzled by its absence, perhaps, wonder what you’ve done wrong. Are you weak now, in this moment that has had no tangible impact on your life, when before you have been so strong? You may start to question whether your own vulnerability is valid, whether your inability to feel anything other than tired, devastated and frightened will be interpreted as attention-seeking or having misdirected priorities.
It may be an unusual thing to say in the face of the “keep calm and carry on” collective, but it’s OK to fall apart just a little bit. To lose yourself just a little, perhaps, if that’s what you need to build yourself back up and be stronger than ever. Like an old iPod that would always work much better if you let it run down and recharged the battery, sometimes you need to let yourself get to the brink, to void yourself of all emotion, anger and fear, before you can rise again.
It’s OK if you don’t handle it well, but there is a caveat: you must not fall apart alone. The talking it through, the making sense of it all, can still happen even if you’re not quite sure what you feel or what it all means, just as long as you have somebody helping you through it.
Bravery and stoicism are kind of expected now. It’s almost like you’re not being a team player if you have a meltdown. But if you do feel despairing of the human race and desperately frightened following the attacks, that is also a perfectly valid response. Just as long as you’re not feeling it all by yourself, keeping it in. And you’re not alone, by the way – thousands will feel like you. Talk to us.
People say beautiful poetic things after events like this, and they can be magical and inspiring, but sometimes you just want to scream a barrage of F-words and say that you don’t feel OK and holy shit your head is disappearing into itself with the sheer pressure of pretending you’re all right. Stuff like that. All fine.
We watch these events happen on the news and at times feel very disconnected from them, like it’s a spectacle or a Hollywood movie. But sometimes it’s a little too close to home, or we lose someone we knew, or kind of knew, or wish we’d known, and it becomes just the right side of relatable – which is why terrorists do this, to get us to notice – and suddenly it becomes real, and so do our emotions, which can be disconcerting and confusing.
We will carry on. And that’s exactly as it should be. But “keep calm and carry on” is a slogan on a tea towel; it isn’t a law. Bravery is noble, but merely an option. We are under no obligation to behave like an indestructible warrior. Sometimes all we can do is be ourselves.
Get on buses, go to concerts, talk to strangers. Live. We’re all doing OK today, and we’ll do better tomorrow, and great again someday soon. However long it takes you to feel that way again is OK – it’s not a race. Eventually you’ll see the bravery was there along – it helped you be honest about your feelings.
You’ll get there. We’re with you.