18. Above the din of doings

During one bus ride to the city, an ambulance raced by with its siren going, and the following thoughts ran through Benny’s head. “I read somewhere about how one of the significant stress factors for people who attend emergency or crisis situations, like anyone in an ambulance or fire fighters, what the Americans called ‘first responders’, who arrive at maybe a big disaster (I’m sure I read this on a US site), was mobile phones — or rather the ringing that can come from phones that are in the pockets of the dead or dying, or even coming from body bags later on.

“Like after a major accident or emergency incident, where there might be a lot of victims lying around, the sound of mobile phones ringing apparently can really get to the people who are there trying to help. The sound just makes a bad situation harder, and it’s not just all ringtones and bleeps, but maybe worse can be the favourite songs, the cheery riffs and the personalised alert sounds — they’d seem so incongruous to the horrible moment when these sounds are playing. But of course it must also be the thought that the ringing is probably from friends or family trying to call the people lying there, trying to check up and see if they’re okay, when they’re not okay at all.

“The emergency people in that situation said how this sound made the victims seem so much more human and frail, more close and familiar because they have people who are trying to call them, who are worried about them, who will miss them.

“I think I can understand the feeling they’re getting at — that we’d all be like that if it were us.”

Coincidentally, or maybe it wasn’t because of that ambulance going by, Benny was running these thoughts through his mind not long after finding out that an old teacher of his from his time at college had died some time over the past year. They had always got along well — he was one of those teachers who would put in time with his students, and always seemed ready for a chat or a serious discussion, if someone wanted to follow up on either the matter at hand in the course or whatever else they wanted to talk about. He had always seemed so genuinely interested, and they had many deep-and-meaningful talks — at least that’s how Benny remembered it — about nonsense or about the details of life or a few other obscure issues.

One that had resonance for Benny, and stayed with him in subtle ways, was about how everyone can benefit from being more disciplined in their thought process, about the steps a person could take to make sure their brain was in gear and that there was some kind of back-up for thinking clearly. That long and involved discussion from years ago really started Benny on the way to coming to the conclusions he eventually reached about those five back-up steps to staying focused and on-track. These were quietly percolating away in the background for a long time, and never really articulated until very recently — and only really to me in here.

So when the news of his old teacher dying of throat cancer finally reached him, Benny of course felt bad about it, but also felt bad because he hadn’t heard about it until now, and this was only through someone from the same course who he rarely caught up with. It was just another example of life getting in between then and now, and Benny could not have changed anything along the way, and wouldn’t really have wanted to. Time just passed, things just happened. There was a reason, but like a lot of us Benny could not have fathomed why he would have remembered reading about those emergency workers and the awful distraction of mobile phone ringtones that became an until then misread provocation — that was also a gift. Another tiny bit of gravel in the shoe. It seemed to me in here that ‘time just passed, things just happened’ left a ringing echo that intruded on his moment, just when he was trying to process the news of his old teacher.

He hoped, and he felt he could assume, that between then and now the life of his confidante from those immersive times back then had been filled with the sort of mindful engagement he remembered them discussing so well, and that lingered in the memory, from all that time ago. That was a person who had always seemed to conduct himself in a thoughtful way, and that was important. Right now it seemed that much of the other ‘from-then-to-now’ noise was just that — and Benny had begun to see that people can be all too attached to it, can use the noise and buzz of all the general doings and goings-on to underline an identity, to personalise their own living ringtone. But all it took was a straightforward, undeniable actuality to juxtapose that din of doings with the now-obvious frailty that was left exposed. Benny hoped, and he felt he could assume, that a strong thoughtfulness stayed.

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