I travelled on a train over the summer break through emerald rolls of English countryside, drinking in green, soaking up light (albeit fairly dim light compared to Jamaican or Australian sunshine). It had been a long time since I watched the world whirl by me in this way. It reminded me of another train journey I took on another continent, many years ago. A journey unforgotten even now.
I will always love train travel, the soft rhythmic swaying sound of the tracks. The relaxing knowledge that I don’t have to navigate, don’t have to negotiate traffic. The gentle entertainment of watching the world whirl past me in a Van Gogh wash of colour.
I could see he loved it too. The small boy three rows up from where I sat.
He was beside the window, nose pressed up against the glass, singing. Singing. He had been singing with joyful contented ardour for the best part of an hour. He sang about the trees, the sky, the cows, the train. Everything that whirled past his eyes became a part of his glorious unending refrain, his ode to colour, to joy, to glorious life.
His disinterested mother sat beside him consumed by her magazine. His older brother sat opposite reading a book. This brother stopped occasionally to smirk condescendingly at his younger brother the way only older brothers can.
Then came the moment I have not forgotten which is perhaps forgotten by everyone else in the world but this small boy and I.
The train pulled into a station. The boy’s mother took the opportunity of steadiness underfoot to use the washroom.
The older brother waited until she was out of sight.
“Quick, this is our stop. Mum’s off the train already. Lets go”
The small boy jumped up in fear grabbing his small backpack. Fear of being lost, fear of missing out, fear of being left behind, forgotten… all the familiar childhood fears we carry, the fears that wrap around us and drag us into frantic action.
His older brother pretended to be leaving the train too but stayed behind his brother, concealing a teasing sneer. The little boy rushed off the train urgently and stood on the station looking desperately around for his mother.
The older brother stayed on the train watching his brother’s frantic expression through the train windows, laughing and enjoying his victory.
Eventually the desperate little boy on the station caught the teasing gleam of his brother on the train. Realisation bit him, fangs drawing red. His bottom lip quivered and then his eyes turned to fire. He stormed back onto the train in red hot righteous rage.
Their mother returned to the yelling and screaming of the two brothers; Fists flailing, words cursing, tears streaming. She engaged with them just long enough to threaten them with a beating if they didn’t be quiet. Silence. In disinterest the mother opened her magazine once more.
The older brother sneered and picked up his book. Injustice added to injury, the little boy slumped in his seat. I could not see if there were tears, his face was hidden. Silence.
The train rocked gently back and forth and the world whirled past in a Van Gogh wash of colour once more.
But the little boy’s song was gone.
Sometimes life bites. It just does. And it’s ferocious fangs bite us in childhood as much as adulthood, drawing red. In fact often the sting of our childhood hurts travel with us far longer and deeper than those received in adulthood when we are already too numb to be reached by life’s jaws. Daily small dehumanisations erode the soul far more effectively than a thousand lashes of a whip.
The biggest problem I find I have with life as a human being is that it must be lived with other human beings. Before we exist in consciousness we are conceived by two human beings, we are born into human families, raised by human parents alongside human siblings, educated by human beings in classrooms full of other small human beings…. you get the picture. Life bites because people bite. And people are all around us.
One of the Hebrew proverbs says ‘A decietful tongue crushes the spirit’. There is nothing so painful as a betrayal by a friend; a lie in the mouth of a mate, a half-truth tearing out trust. ‘A deceitful tongue crushes the spirit’. It crushes the spirit of both the lier and the lied to. And a crushed spirit loses it’s song.
The problem with pain is that it causes us to withdraw. We may fight at first but in the end so often we disappear into ourselves, building concrete walls around our hearts, the walls of our coping-mechanism coffins, pretending it didn’t matter, didn’t hurt, didn’t tear us apart and leave us numb. Concrete. This is where we live. Safe in our concrete-coffin-bomb shelters.
But safe isn’t always safe. Sometimes safety is just a slow death. In closet coffin-bomb-shelter we slowly wither away. And no matter how I decorate my bomb shelter, with pictures and potteries, rants and rationalisations, fallacies and fantasies, it will always be a bomb shelter and I will always be trapped; Song-less in a silent skin.
A song never finds its voice in avoidance. Only in courage lungs fill with air, only in choice does the melody rise, only in risk does our life breath again.
French author Anias Nin said “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Sometimes the greatest courage is required for the smallest things; Small things, like the choice to forgive, the choice to re-engage, the choice to fill our lungs with air another day. The choice to sing in a song-less world.
Life daily whirls past us in a Van Gogh wash of colour. Do we rise and find our song again? Or stay, in safe bomb-shelter silence?
‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ Joshua 1:9