Dr. David Nott is a Welsh surgeon, known as the Indiana Jones of surgery. On most days, he probably wished he hadn’t earned that nickname, a reminder of all that is wrong with the world.
Dr. Nott has been volunteering his time in many war-ravaged zones and, in the last five years, in Syria.
A recent article by Ben Taub in the New Yorker profiled his work in such details that, more than once, tears filled my eyes while reading. The article is so devastating because its details are more harrowing, more vivid and more painful to absorb than the abstract and distant news newspapers and tv have been feeding us. Dr. Nott trains Syrian doctors and other medical professionals in the practice of surgery, any type of surgery, in makeshift triage hospitals around Syria. The horrors he has witnessed are summed up in the unspeakable pronouncement “sometimes I wished my patients would die” because what they will face if they live is too tragic to contemplate.
But bearing witness is not for the faint of heart.
“A few weeks after Nott left Aleppo, he was invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace. Wild duck and vintage port were served. Janet Oldroyd Hulme, one of Britain’s most prolific growers of rhubarb, sat on his left, and the Queen sat on his right. When the Queen turned to him, he explained that he had just returned from Syria. “How was it?” she asked. “I tried to play it light, and I said it was absolutely dreadful,” he told me. The Queen pressed for details, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her, and his bottom lip began quivering. At that point, “she summoned the corgis,” he said. For the next twenty minutes, Nott and the Queen petted the dogs and fed them biscuits under the table. As the lunch came to a close, he says, she remarked, “That’s much better than talking, isn’t it?”
Life can force us into experiences that are at times too difficult to narrate. Take Eli Wiesel, who passed away this week and who, wracked by guilt at having survived Auschwitz when millions of others died, vowed to dedicate his life to bearing witness to the horrors of the holocaust. But not before ten years had passed, as he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to find the right words, the words that would appropriately convey the night of his experience.
We are always encouraged to talk, to explain, to emote: if we say it out loud, if we put it black on white, it, whatever it is, will lose its power and the healing will begin. It’s most likely true for most of us. But the time in between the devastation experienced and the ability to pluck words from the dictionary that can convey how we were affected is a wordless pause, as if the psyche refuses to call things with the names we codified.
Whether bearing witness to genocides of the proportions Eli Wiesel and Dr. Nott found themselves in, or just to our personal and more mundane heartaches, we should remember that the narrative comes later, and we need to allow space for the pain to resonate in our bodies first.
During those pauses, talk cannot happen. Sometimes petting corgis is all we can muster.
Dedicated to all those who, today, cannot celebrate freedom.