There are some people in this life who are so extraordinary that they seem incapable of doing something as prosaic as dying. 'Larger than life' is the type of clichéd, sad phraseology I’ve come to loathe. But weighed down by grief, it seemed the only cluster of words I could grasp when trying to articulate to strangers who my grandmother was after her death five years ago. She was a force of nature. She was magical. She was a hurricane. She was a template.
The most important people in life are the ones that end up defining for us what certain experiences feel like. They all matter. They become the moulds we cast around feelings like love, admiration, courage. They’re the prototype for friends, lovers, heroes. We will forever spend our lives trying to make everyone else who succeeds them fit into the margins they’ve drawn. It is our blessing and also our curse because, sadly, we often don’t know who these people are until they’re gone.
Just two letters. Such a small name for a person who was so very much larger than life. Ten years ago, that name was quite formidable when I began working at Oxfam, a novitiate at the altar of humanitarian work. She was then one of Oxfam’s brightest – the sort of colleague everyone knew of and wanted to know. She was a force of nature. She was magical. She was a hurricane.
She was a template. The embodiment of everything I grew to love about the people who choose humanitarian work of all shades and gradients as a career. Adaptable, quick on the uptake, independent, wickedly funny, analytical, open, accepting, intellectually curious, principled and kind. Traits made all the more impressive when you consider the chaotic, dangerous and stressful context in which most are asked to live and work. These are the people who run towards the fire. A mishpocha of individuals who, repeatedly seeing the world at its worst, love anyway. It is not the type of work that lends itself to poetry or screenplays but as it’s been said that, far and away, the best prize life still offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
When she left the world of aid work and entered the world of politics, she kept these values at her centre. In the 13 months she sat in parliament, she was one of the most outspoken and vociferous advocates for refugees and the harshest of critics against the conflicts and regimes which dispossess them of their homelands.
I remember checking the news this past autumn whilst working in a Balkan refugee camp and seeing her photo pop up. Among many callous, ill-written articles deriding the people who sought safety on our shores, there she was – just Jo – holding a sign reading 'Refugees Welcome’. I didn’t know then why it meant so much to know she was 'on our side’, but it did. Surely if someone like her was leading other decision-makers on this issue, there was hope that others would really see the people at the heart of this 'crisis’ and not the propaganda.
And then, this May, when the government was to vote on the Lord Dubs' amendment to bring 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees to the UK, she stood in parliament and passionately said that she would 'risk life and limb' to extricate her own two children from anything close to the hellholes child refugees have fled.
But what I didn’t realise – what so many of us didn’t realise – is that compassion isn’t just a noun. Compassion is a revolutionary act. By standing up so fiercely for the most vulnerable, she appears to have in fact risked her life.
I don’t know how or when the world got so complacent and comfortable with this current style of politics. It has been normalised that our politicians take a sort of moral diuretic, watering down principles and values that have long defined us and instead flood our political landscape with suspicions and blame transference. All of the important attributes that underline political courage are so diluted that they now seem imperceptible and gathering it all up seems as impossible as emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. But this is where opportunity can present itself out of tragedy.
After my grandmother’s death, I read Joan Didion’s astounding 'Year of Magical Thinking' – a book that anyone going through grief should read (and one I re-read every now and again). It’s essentially about how we continue a story after an ending; how we continue writing someone’s story after their ending. For Jo, this work has only just begun and it is something anyone who has been affected by her life or her story can contribute towards.
Compassion is a revolutionary act. But it is also a necessary act.
Laurie Gayle is a Texan who has been living and working in Scotland since 2006. She is chair of YWCA Scotland. She works currently for Save the Children. This article first appeared in SR immediately after Jo Cox's death.
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