Last week we watched online and on television, the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. People were trapped in their apartments as the fire raced up through the building, leaving them no way out and diminishing hope of rescue. Some were visible through apartment windows, their wretched desperation painfully visible. News reports spoke of people jumping and of mothers dropping their children in hopes that they would be caught below. There were rampant speculations about the cause of this unprecedented fire, such as improper cladding on the building, inoperative fire alarms, no sprinkler system and persistent neglect of residents’ concerns about the safety of the building. It was the kind of tragedy that you did not want to witness yet could not tear yourself away from. It remains a heartbreaking story of loss as the numbers of dead approach 80 with more likely to come.
Another fire in central Portugal killed at least 25 people who were trapped in their cars on the road that they took to escape. Drone footage of burnt-out vehicles depicts ghastly reminders of the terror and fear that their occupants must have experienced as the flames overtook them. It is an unbearable truth. It is an ending of life that cannot be understood. Its aftermath rife with incomprehensible grief.
Terrorist attacks in London and Paris have become so frequent as to be expected. The evening news is more often than not a long litany of terror attacks, mass shootings and fierce weather or fire tragedies around the world. We are in the front row watching human suffering and pain and loss. It can seem like entertainment on the screen. Desensitization has ensued. In fact, because there are in the United States an average of 30 gun deaths daily and over 30,000 per year, it has become impossible to report them all and we have grown immune to shock. Rather, we expect such reports and assume there are more to follow.
the human story
But the Grenfell Tower fire made the human story more tangible than most. On that night the people who lived in those apartments were at home doing ordinary things. They made dinner, watched TV, did laundry, took baths, read to their kids, thought about work and the future, studied, made love to their partners, turned off lights and fell asleep as usual. Then into that normal came the screams and smoke and fire that soared up to find them, taking everything they knew and hoped-for and dreamed-of and deserved to keep. Home, their place of refuge and solace, disrupted into unimaginable fright and dread. Some thought that they needed to stay put in their flats if they were to be rescued and in making that choice trapped themselves without chance of survival. Others could not find their way to the single, unlit stairwell. Others took to the roof with flashlights and phones to signal for help.
In those Grenfell Tower residents we witnessed the fragility and brevity of life. Life cut short with a sudden, fearful, hateful warning. For those who got out and survived it means a changed and damaged existence. For those who lost loved-ones it means agony and bitterness. For the firefighters, it means psychological trauma from what they witnessed and endured trying to fight the fire and save lives. For all of us who witnessed the fire, it means responsibility to honour those who were a part of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
If we have become numb to reports of human loss, if we have become spectators, it is crucial that we remind ourselves that the 6 o’clock news is not entertainment. Last week as news of the London fire broke, twitter was a-buzz with a stream of ill-informed accusations and blame and speculations. While it was the primary source of information online in the early hours, it was riddled with comments that had little basis in fact. Social media allows everyone to have a say which can add greatly to the chaos and misunderstanding of what is actually happening during serious incidents. It serves, and does not serve, at the same time. We should not be so involved with the drama of relating a story that we overlook what the story means. People dying is not an iPhone movie for twitter or Facebook or Instagram. It is a very personal, very disturbing and tragic loss of life.
I admit, I was guilty of tracking comments on twitter after I discovered a post about the fire on Facebook. I searched the news sites first but could not find any reports in the initial hours from Canadian or US sources. I quickly became frustrated with the inconsistent claims on twitter regarding the cause and extent of the fire. The graphic descriptions of people jumping was unbearable. I shut it off and went to bed. I woke up many times, unable to get out the comments and images out of my head.
In the days since, I have followed news reports noting that as the days go on there is less attention paid to the London fire as more recent, horrific stories overshadow it. The fire in Portugal. Another terrorist attack in London. Another possible terrorist attack in Paris. Shootings of the day in the US. This continuous onslaught disturbs me more than usual since the London fire. I don’t want to be so hungry to learn the latest catastrophe that I lose sight of what is really happening. I don’t want to limit my understanding and reflection to 140 character tweets before I race on to the next biggest news item.
The lesson that I take from Grenfell Tower is that the people who lived there were just like us. What happened to them can happen to us. Surely the people on that fateful road in central Portugal had seen the reports out of London earlier in the week and were grateful that they and their families were safe. And then they were not. We share with those who died the desire for home, family, love and happiness. We are none of us exempt from the reality that we have only a guarantee of today. The future is not for certain.
It may sound altruistic but I feel compelled to say that we must live life to the best of our ability every day. We must love deeply and say I love you often and with passion. We must care for others immensely and without hesitation. We must value our time and share it with others. We must act on our dreams and do the things that matter to us. We must write letters and make phone calls and have important, and sometimes trifling, and always lasting conversations. We must make ordinary evenings of dinner and togetherness and kisses goodnight the focus of our pleasure and the heart of our desire. We must do these things for the good of humanity and of ourselves.
I write these things today because I have called myself to a personal reckoning. This global context, this world stage, is not only for my information consumption. It is also my call to accountability for how I listen, participate and respond. We live in the era of the greatest communication ever. We consume information with speed and ease. I want to be less impressed with the scoop and more interested in the human condition. It is imperative that I take time to consider what is occurring and not hasten on. And I don’t ever want to forget that tragedies are not just far off events from which I am removed and safe. If we are to truly be a global society we must also have global concern and compassion. We must let the stories on the screen resonate with our hearts more than our minds.