mother-of-four, she learned the value of experiencing other lives before passing judgement
When the struggle for survival displaces religion and politics
"DISTANCE distorts." About two years ago I heard those words spoken in an impassioned speech at a Justice and Peace conference. The speaker knew what he was talking about and cared very much about the disadvantaged and the deprived.
I was impressed by his talk and convinced that he was right. He pointed out that however many news films we watch that bring before our eyes the horrors of life in parts of Africa, Asia or South America, and however appalled and distressed we may be by what we see. we still don't really have any idea what it is like to live or die like that, because in truth we are so far removed from that kind of experience.
His talk became more immediately political as he pointed out how little most of the decision-makers in our own land know about inner-city poverty, because they live at a distance from the squalor and desperation of our council estates.
Again and again, and especially since that conference, I have realised what separate lives people lead. Particularly in cities and big towns, those who have pleasant and comfortable surroundings can live without any awareness of what it is like to exist in the slummy neighbourhood a few streets away.
I knew all this; I was saddened and sometimes angered by its implications. But this week I learned something new. It is not only distance that distorts our understandings and our attitudes.
I went to stay with a young friend for three days. Her husband, a builder, is out of work, and in desperation has gone abroad in search of employment. There are four children and the family lives on income support.
My friend is intelligent, sensitive and loving, all four children are bright and beautiful, but my whole stay was a nightmare. There is constant unrelieved tension, worry, and tiredness.
Two of the children are babies, and one of them suffers from severe asthma attacks. Katie, the eldest, is on the brink of adolescence with too much homework to be much help with the little ones. The brunt of this work is borne by ten-year-old Stephen who changes nappies with cheerfulness and expertise.
Because of money problems my friend Pat child-minds another baby. For this she is paid £1.20 an hour. She struggles to make a good life for her children.
One day we changed three lots of nappies, dressed the three small ones in warm clothing and set off on two long walks, one to a mother-and-toddler group, one to the library to get books for the older children.
Pat has not had a full night's sleep for over two years, nor could I give her one because she is still breast-feeding the baby. All her clothes and the children's are second-hand or bought in charity shops. There is not time in the day to read or listen to the radio. As a result of this we hear no weather forecast.
On the middle day of my stay, when we set off to take the children to the park, the sun was shining and it was so warm that we went without coats. We were caught in a downpour and all our clothes were soaking wet.
That night everyone except me coughed continually. When I left the next morning, Pat said that the baby and Katie and she herself all had chest infections. She was wondering if she could face the walk to the doctor's surgery.
Late at night when all the children were in bed, Pat and I would collapse on the sofa together, too tired to talk.
Each evening we switched on the television for a few moments. It was always the election campaign. Pat was bored, indifferent, and for the first time. so was I. She voted Labour, because some time in her past that was her conviction. but she could not bring herself to take an interest in something that seemed so remote from the reality and hard grind of daily living.
Once or twice during the three days, Pat laughed. Most of the time she was sunk in near-despair. Then she would say to me: "We just have to survive. Survival is all we can hope for."
Katie and Stephen go to good Catholic schools where some of the good Catholic teachers tell them that is it a very serious sin to miss Mass on Sunday.
Katie and Stephen do not go to church. Their mother is-not a Catholic and even if she were I doubt if she would have the time or the energy to take them For her, religion is like politics it doesn't seem relevant to the sheer struggle of staying alive.
This experience has shocked and grieved me, but what amazed me most was the tangible love and affection the children showed their mother and one another.
Pat could scarcely respond to them, but is clearly, with her absent husband, the source of this warmth and caring which her children are able to express in the midst of the turmoil and stress.
I have discovered that it is not only distance that distorts, even more it is lack of experience. I realise that I am like those wellmeaning people who sleep rough or go without food for a couple of days in solidarity with their deprived brethren.
They are not really experiencing what it is to be homeless or starving. Nor do I, bruised though I may be in body and soul, really know what it is like to be Pat.
But I do know more than I did enough to admire her and grieve for her and he grateful for what living with her for those three days has given me.