I remember reading Tony Parsons ‘Man and Boy‘ years ago and what stayed with me was the notion of being ‘tested’ in life to see what you’re made of. Parsons always felt intimidated by his father and felt less of a man because he had not been ‘tested’ by war. To Parsons, his dad was a hero having survived the most exacting of circumstances life can throw at you. War “separates the men from the boys” and enables people to dig deep and to find resources they never knew they had. But as it turns out, we are all ‘tested’ in one way or another and don’t need war situations to find our mettle. Parsons himself was tested when his wife left him with sole responsibility for their child and he had to deal with the care issues of how to work and raise a child alone, something his father had never been called upon to do and which his father admitted he lacked the skills for.
Growing up as a ‘Baby Boomer’ in the post-war years we were exposed to extensive footage of camp liberations and testimonies from freed prisoners about their living conditions, experiments and tortures endured. I have always been in awe of anyone who has survived torture, especially without giving secrets away, because if anyone wanted to know something from me all they had to do was threaten me and I’d spill the lot. I can’t bear pain and although stubborn, I’m not brave and would never attempt to withold anything from people in a position to do me harm. I’d like to think that there would be an exception if my children were involved, but that’s easy to say sitting here in the comfort of my own home. The truth is, until we’re in a situation we never really know how we’re going to react or what we will be capable of doing in order to survive.
‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron is a good example of this. Sophie is a beautiful Jewess with two children, a boy and young girl. A Nazi commander is taken with Sophie’s looks and gives her the opportunity to save one child that she is allowed to take with her, the other she has to give to a guard. If she doesn’t choose, they both die. She cannot make the choice until the very last moment when the boy is going to be shot. She has the little girl in her arms and thrusts her into the hands of the guard, saving the boy. That book has haunted me for years – how can you as a parent make a choice about which of your children live and which die? Yet parents all over the world face those kinds of choices every day because they live in poverty and circumstances most of us cannot even imagine. If selling one of your daughters to a brothel means the other three live, or selling a son into bonded labour pays off a debt so that the rest of the family eat, or breast-feeding one twin saves their life because you don’t have enough milk for both, what sort of choices would you make?