14th July, 2016.
As I stood amongst the gathering crowds in Bordeaux on Thursday evening the sun went down and I spotted what looked like an angel watching over the city.
She’s “Liberty”, and sits on top of the column at Quinconces. Up close you can see that she is holding a broken chain.
The fireworks were spectacular, fired up into the night sky from a barge in the middle of the river, opposite the Bourse. The crowd was immense. I was watching from the left bank and surrounded by children, parents, young and old, ooh-ing and ah-ing, and finally applauding and cheering as the final glorious fireworks seemed to fill the entire sky. I was struck by the sheer delight around me. How much people thrill to firework displays!
The crowd slowly dispersed and I got back to the hotel, where the TV in the lounge was showing the dreadful events of Nice. As the details slowly emerged, the horror intensified. A lorry driven through a crowd, a crowd like the one I was part of, who had been enjoying exactly the same kind of show as I had, just minutes before. Incomprehensible.
I spent my medical career trying to understand. Diagnosis is really just a word for understanding. A person comes with a story, tells of their symptoms, has physical changes in their body. Medical treatment starts with understanding what’s going on, with what you are dealing with. That’s the diagnosis. Then you have to choose from a range of options as you decide what to do about it. What actions you should take now.
I approach these terrible events in the world in the same way. But I’m struggling. I don’t understand how a human being can go from taking smiling selfies in the middle of a crowd of happy people in the afternoon to driving a truck at them in the evening in an attempt to kill and maim as many men, women and children as possible. I don’t understand how it happens. The only thing I know is that it’s not simple. There will be multiple factors in play. Some of them will be society-wide, some world-wide, some very specific to certain individuals, or certain families.
My approach to health was not one of fighting diseases. I didn’t use all those military metaphors of eliminating, battling, fighting, killing and so on…..instead, I always sought to understand what might assist and stimulate the individual’s powers of recovery and resilience. Health seems to involve such things, at least in part.
So, as I try to make sense of these events in a country whose core principles are “liberty, equality and fraternity”, I reckon some of the answers will involve strengthening just those features. How do we grow freedom? How do we move towards, instead of away from, greater equality? How do we spread a sense of all being in this together, we human beings, regardless of race, gender or religion?
But maybe we have to start by making a decent diagnosis. Maybe a healthier society can only emerge from a greater, (and, I’d argue, better) level of understanding?
After that, we need to act. We need to do something different.