Fighting Fires: By Connecting With Each Other

Part 2: We get by with a little help from our friends, and community.

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The recent Moors fire, (see part one), ignited in my local community a whole range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours in attempts to manage fear. It was compelling to see how this energy unfolded as a collective phenomenon. The fire had developed over several days, and we locals sought and shared information; rationalised, planned for, and managed it, whilst trying to hold our worst-case scenarios in check. Photos and videos shared via social media were raising the fear temperature high in us all, however. A sky-scraping wall of flames, lighting up the hills, crept towards our tiny, vulnerable cottages, like a screenshot from a Hollywood blockbuster. The sirens of fire crews and the whirr of helicopters added to the soundtrack.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry was in the news that same week. Associations and comparisons to it were being sparked in the backs of our minds. Our individual ‘imaginative brain network’ throws up information from our past experience, searching our memory for similar patterns or occasions. It was a very different situation, but the mind loves to taunt: ‘this could be you…”. The imagination also zealously projects into the future “what might happen if…’” thus setting alight our worst fears. This information search is also automatically done with a ‘negative bias’. We notice by default all possible threats easily, which then triggers our panic button, alerting us to act immediately to keep ourselves safe. The mind needs five positive events to be noticed, as opposed to only one negative. We work overtime to protect ourselves, by use of a much-obsolete prehistoric brain program.

This time of near-panic was palpable and the community began to connect. Supporting each other, offering shelter, whilst acknowledging and sympathising with difficult feelings. Individual resilience was discussed in part one of this article, along with the Danish concept of “sisu”: It is a peculiar strength you find within yourself when you have hit rock bottom, which acts as a catalyst. A collective sense of ‘sisu’ could be felt during the early days of the fire. There were some in the community who tapped into theirs and shared it generously, giving kindly guidance to others who were in need. Further afield in Manchester, but removed from the immediacy of the situation, people were quick to offer shelter and practical help. Our neighbours were looking out for the vulnerable. 

As evacuations got underway, I was reminded of the war-time mentality my grandparents often spoke fondly of. The term ‘evacuee’ evokes memories of the vulnerable, moved out of the bombed cities to safer countryside foster families during WW2. As we wondered whether to leave our homes behind, I also thought of those who we often see on the news, who incredulously stay on in war-zones, while their town is shelled to the ground around them. They are desperate to remain in their homes, despite the incredible danger to their lives, and loss of resources. But they are too connected to their place and to their people, their community.  We preferred to stay put too, unless told categorically it was critical to leave.

The arrival of the army a couple of days later brought a sense of tremendous relief. At last, we could allow ourselves to sink into the luxury of relative safety. Gas masks were issued, similar to those relics from WW2, and from there, normalisation began. The ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On”  war-time meme was eloquently portrayed in the photograph of a woman carrying her shopping bags through the thick smoke, wearing her mask. Community appeals were made to organise essentials of sunscreen, drinks, and socks in large quantities for frontline services, while we resumed our normal, relatively closed-off lives. Neighbours stopped reaching out to each other, as we returned to fighting our own own everyday fires behind doors closed to the smoke and each other. 

We like to think we are a strong community in Manchester: we are the “worker-bees” who formed the original hive of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Manchester Arena terrorist attack of May 2017 offered a more vivid example of collective sisu. In the middle of the night, immediately after the bomb went off, people all over the city reached out to those scattered and confused by the event, voluntarily taxi-ing and accommodating ‘refugees’ from the concert.

We had just passed the bomb’s anniversary as the fire took hold, and celebrations took place outside the Town Hall: “This is what love sounds like,” roared poet Tony Walsh at the #ManchesterTogether singalong which began with “Don't look back in Anger” by Mancunian band Oasis. The "collective effervescence" of the community was tangible: it was an energy lifting people up, together in spiritual connection, as sociologist Durkheim had once described.  This song originally started acapella by one woman at the vigil in St. Anne’s Square, with the crowd spontaneously joining in a chorus across the sea of flowers. This song was the original moment of 'collective effervescence' when people flocked in their hundreds to mourn in the weeks following the bomb. We all felt the loss as if it were our own, and we needed to mourn together.

In the year since, our long-held symbol of the worker bee was graffitied all across the walls in the city centre, while many got it tattooed on their person. There was a genuine need for a sense of belonging to our Manchester tribe. This was a connection of “love over hate” which surpassed people’s usual prejudices and differences. 

Positive energy can rise above trauma: Collective sisu often resonates in such extreme events. It is the glue which connects the pieces together, to make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. We huddle, support, love, grieve, remember as required when thrown together. But how can we harness this energy? Can we use this ‘glue’ to strengthen communities for the longer-term, rather than just fighting fires in the heat of the moment?

Such connections also quickly disappear when ‘the fuss’ dies down. Perhaps we have only a finite amount of energy to spend on ourselves and maybe those nearest to us in our busy lives. To connect at such heightened levels for extended periods can become exhausting, compassion fatigue hits. Yet these events show us how much we can thrive together if only we could step outside our personal space and into our diverse community more often. To go beyond our comfort zone of our natural social networks or our usual tribal alliances with only those who agree with us, who fit our values easily.

Maybe if we were more accepting and tolerant of differences outside our little bubbles, society can evolve. By listening to opposing opinions and learning from each other’s insights, with mutual respect, even when in disagreement.

We exist much of the time in isolation, separated from everyone, even those we deem ‘close’, and possibly from ourselves. But we need to truly connect to each other in order to be healthy individuals. Loneliness is now said to be a greater health risk than smoking heavily. Oxytocin, the hormone released when we bond with others, is good for our physical health and wellbeing.

We have to ask ourselves: how well do we really know each other? Friends may meet regularly but often we may find ourselves presenting only the strongest, and maybe least authentic side. We can start by truly acknowledging and nurturing the relationships we do have to start with. To be more fully engaged with those we love and to sustain the relationship in a realistic way.

We all need at least one person in our lives who knows us inside out, who fully accepts us. Someone we can reach out to when you need a hand, a different perspective, a few words, to stop that crushing feeling of isolation. 

We need to make it clear we REALLY are there should they need our sisu to support them. And to check that regularly and with sincerity rather lip-service. We also need to reframe the mindset of seeing the need for help as a sign of weakness. To see it as a sign of strength, by speaking up. The age of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘authenticity’ is dawning upon us. Those who are brave enough are showing their dark side, but it's not for the faint-hearted in our as-yet judgemental society. 

Collective sisu acts like an insurance policy: there is support to be drawn from when we are down: there will always be others who are higher we can lean on, if they are generous enough. 

We have limited energy, but let’s spend it well. Choose wisely who you connect with, resonate with, on and offline. Attend to those relationships that are the most important. Social media has its place, especially for those isolated by circumstance, it is a lifeline. It’s a connected world, but often unreal. We must value depth and quality above quantity, not keep adding to our numbers, often seen as a way to self-validate. 'IRL' face to face communication is vital, where we can hear voice tone, read body language and facial expressions, give hugs and oxytocin freely! Texting and other written means are highly interpretative, it’s easy, throwaway, often neglectful.

Life is a constant series of fires to fight, but there is strength in numbers. We always rise up again as a group together. We all have a need to belong and we all have a part to play, no matter what our individual circumstances are. We “get by with a little help from our friends.” 

Illustration: Manchester Bee: linocut print (by myself)

India Jeanne

Artist, Creative therapist, @WingstoFlyCreative

By facing, and working creatively on life's challenges, I believe we can alter our physical health and mental wellbeing for the better. We can fly beyond our pain!