Natalie Williams
Shocked by the 'New Normal'

Bookended by terrorist attacks in Paris and punctuated by political surprises, the growing refugee crisis and continued austerity, 2015 was in many ways a year of fear and uncertainty. As I cast my mind back to seeing national and international events unfolding on rolling 24-hour news cycles and Twitter-feeds over the last year, mostly I remember feeling sad, disappointed, outraged and shocked.

I’m thankful for shock, though. It’s good that these things shock us. We only cease to be shocked when something has become commonplace. It’s tragic that we’re probably less and less surprised by mass shootings in America now, because of the frequency with which they occur. (In December 2015 alone, there were 20 involving four or more people injured. Many of these wouldn’t even be ‘news’ here anymore, because they’ve become usual events.)

In the recent series of US drama Homeland, there was an episode called ‘New Normal’ in which one of the characters says of terrorist threats to cities, “It’s the new normal, gentlemen.” Sadly, this isn’t just fiction. Just this weekend we have seen the release of a video by Islamic State threatening more destruction and murder.

I want to remain shocked by terrorist attacks – I don’t want to become so familiar with seeing them on the news that tweeting ‘Je suis Charlie’ or overlaying the French flag on my Facebook profile feels like a sufficient response. I want the sense of restlessness and helplessness and confusion I feel when I read and hear about these atrocities to continue, because all the while I’m shocked by them, it means they haven’t become a part of normal life.

As horrifying as the attacks in Paris, on Sousse beach in Tunisia, on schoolgirls in Nigeria, in Iraq and Syria and in so many other places are – and all of them are truly horrifying – it’s the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on the beach that has lingered with me since I first saw it. Tragically, the deaths of refugees trying to get to safety are also fast becoming the ‘new normal’. A two-year-old boy became the first known 2016 refugee casualty in Europe at the weekend.

We must not allow ourselves to become desensitised to these horrors, whether they occur monthly or weekly or even daily. In his New Year message, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “In today’s world, hospitality and love are our most formidable weapons against hatred and extremism. [...] I wish you all a happy New Year, filled with hope.”

When we experience shock – whether it’s over extremism or emergencies – is because we hope for better. All the time hope is still alive within us, shock and outrage and disappointment will remain too, because whether it’s ‘normal’ or not, something within us innately refuses to accept that this is ‘how it is now’.

Whatever happens in 2016, whatever crises, whatever attacks, whatever suffering, as Christians we have a responsibility, a duty, to keep hope burning brightly. We mustn’t let our hearts become numb or dull or dimmed by the darkness around us. It’s only when we keep hope alive in our own hearts that we can reignite it in others too. When hope runs dry, so does the compassion and empathy that compels us to do something. Despair doesn’t propel us into action; hope does – hope that things can be different, will be different and we can make a difference.

Sometimes hope is all we can do and all we have to offer. Sometimes, hoping against all hope is a shocking thing to do. But it’s exactly what we must do, this year, and the next.