Yesterday evening a Twitter follower who lives in Texas rapped me over the knuckles for tweeting “Can there be anything more painful than forgetting your iPhone password?” earlier. Not the day to be joking about pain, he said. My comment had nothing to do with events in the US, but he got me thinking. Should I have tweeted that? Should I have stopped to think first, lest somebody’s feelings be hurt?
Should I always assess whether to tweet about the banality of my own life based on the context of whatever world events happen to be unfolding at the time?
The fact is that there are no days to joke about pain. No days on which there is no suffering. No days on which someone, somewhere, isn’t mired in anguish. Anguish which, I might add, is frequently deemed worthy of our collective sympathy by whether or not it reaches our TV screens; by whether it’s a trending topic on Twitter.
Newtown is terrible. I can’t begin to imagine the pain those parents are experiencing. I painted this work yesterday (and the image above today) because writing about it seems pointless, and sometimes images express it better than words ever could. But the ordinariness of life does not come to an end because of the suffering of others. It goes on, in its generosity and its petty irritations, its indifference and its empathy. WH Auden captures this in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts, which I studied when I was 13 years old in Std 6 at Redhill, and which resonates today more than ever, when suffering is grist for the ceaseless mill of news and gossip, and where horrible events get names and logos on the 24 hour news channels that cover them.
Mr Hansard raised a good point, though, and he forced me off the fence upon which I’m so fond of sitting, so I’m grateful to him. Normally I’d apologise for the fact that he feels offended enough to tell me I should not have tweeted.
But not this time. This time, I am not backing down. His being offended is his choice, and something over which I have no control. To apologize would be both meaningless and disingenuous, so I will not. The remark I fired off was in response to genuinely felt frustration at the time. I gave it very little thought; it was flippant and, appearing in his timeline when it did, annoyingly insensitive. But this is true of life: that every day we say and do things that others find insensitive or even offensive. Sometimes I do this deliberately; mostly it’s unwitting.
So now I must ask myself: before I express an opinion on the mundane or the banal, before I use irony or hyperbole or refer in some way to my own unhappiness or frustration, must I check whether somebody out there somewhere in the world might be offended?
That’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is no. Allow myself to be policed by this man’s sensitivities and I must give way to everybody else’s too. My responses to everything – world events, local disasters, paper cuts – must be decided, not by my own judgment, but by a sort of ongoing real time focus group.
How are we to decide when we may have a sense of humour about life and when we may not? By weighing it up for ourselves, I’d suggest. By using our own judgment, and dealing with the consequences. Not by being supervised by others who – all too often – wear their perpetually Offended state of being as a badge conferring special needs status upon them.
Auden, by the way, also knew the power of pain. In “Stop All the Clocks” he describes how it feels to be immersed in grief, how the world must stop what it is doing and grind to a halt. But of course it cannot.
Living with ambiguity is hard. But living without it is harder. Even if that means causing pain by joking about it.