Thought for the day — Trying to forget the terrible means we never learn from it

Thought for the day — Trying to forget the terrible means we never learn from it
8 May 2023

Blink and you might have missed it, but a few days ago the World Health Organisation declared that Covid-19 no longer represents a global health emergency.

It caught my attention because it got barely a few seconds on the evening news.

After all we have been through, there was no great fanfare, just a brief statement that three years after it declared its highest level of alert, the emergency was over. That was it, almost a post-note in the daily news.

I’ve always been curious about what happened after the last great pandemic — the so-called Spanish flu of 1918. There are surprisingly few memorials to the victims, or commemorations to the sacrifice of doctors and nurses, and there is no great body of writing, songs or art referring to the pandemic. Some historians refer to this as the cultural amnesia of the 1918 pandemic. It was so awful, that people just wanted to forget. And in forgetting, we were inevitably less well prepared for 2020.

Have you ever found yourself talking about what happened two years ago, when you really mean four years ago, as if the pandemic years didn’t happen?

It’s an interesting psychological response to trauma — to behave as if the trauma never happened.

Of course, the problem of trying to forget the terrible is that we never learn from it.

It’s happening here.

A few weeks ago, on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we had a few occasions to mark 25 years of peace, mainly involving the great and the good who were involved in the Agreement.

In huge contrast, the same week in Rwanda, the whole country, young and old, joined together for the 29th Day of Remembering for all those who lost their lives in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. It was moving to see so many young people, born after 1994 hold candles in a simple act of reflection and remembering. It was remarkable to see Rwanda do what Northern Ireland has so far been unable to do — to simply come together on an official day once a year, to remember all those who lost their lives in the Troubles, and to pledge ourselves to never allow it to happen again.

Could it be that our avoidance of dealing with the past means we continue to get stuck in the past?

Originally broadcast at BBC Radio Ulster on 8 May 2023. Transcript provided by the author.

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