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Paralyzed by helplessness

By David Wilson

Last autumn, members of a Facebook group from the central Ontario lake where we have a cottage sounded an alarm: a loon that many cottagers (including us) had seen flailing around in the water appeared to be suffering from a broken leg. It needed help, but no one had a clue what to do. 

An injured leg is bad news for a loon at the best of times. Loons need their legs to fly — they literally run across the water, flapping their slender wings until they’ve gained enough speed to get airborne. With one leg out of commission and winter coming on, the bird on our lake was in grave danger. If it couldn’t fly, it wouldn’t be able to migrate south.

The cottagers’ Facebook page hummed with questions, comments and suggestions for rescuing the loon. But the harsh truth was that there wasn’t much anyone could do. The bird would disappear under the water any time a boat got close to it. By early December, there was too much ice on the lake for the boats to go out, and too little to attempt a rescue on foot. The loon’s cry, so evocative in summer, became a solitary, haunting plea as winter approached. Those who heard it could only pray that the bird’s suffering would soon end.

It’s been that kind of season. Terrible things are happening everywhere, not just on a lake or to a bird, and well-intentioned people are seemingly paralyzed by helplessness. Nobody wants an angry young man to drive a transport truck into crowds of people at a Christmas market, but there’s not much we can do to stop it. Nor can we stop the soldier about to press a button and unleash a drone strike that will kill dozens of innocent civilians thousands of kilometres away. We hoped against hope that voters in the United States would come to their senses and reject the odious Donald Trump, but they went ahead and elected him to the most powerful office in the world.

And then there’s Syria. The civil war raging there since 2011 has left an estimated 470,000 dead, thousands of them children, and created a refugee crisis of staggering proportions. Ask any reasonable person what should happen there, and the answer will be “stop the fighting.” But decency seems to be no match for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the competing superpower agendas prolonging the war: Russia, wanting to preserve its strategic foothold in the region; and the United States, reluctant to supply the rebels with weapons for fear they’ll fall into the hands of jihadists. 

In September, a seven-year-old Syrian girl named Bana Alabed began posting Twitter pictures and videos showing the grim realities of life for civilians trapped and pleading for help in the besieged rebel stronghold of east Aleppo. Aided by her mother, an English teacher, Bana attracted more than 300,000 followers worldwide with her tweets. In early December, her account went silent and her followers feared the worst. When she resurfaced, her tweets had become a cry of desperation. “This is my last moment to either live or die,” she wrote as Assad’s troops advanced.

Thousands of kilometres away, a lake was freezing and a loon’s cries were fading. The doomed bird couldn’t have known that people onshore were suffering with it, in their own way. Bana’s story ended better — if “better” means leaving everything behind to start a new life as a refugee. At least she and her family were alive. The Twitter followers who heard her cries could take some satisfaction in knowing that the concern they showed helped the family survive. Simply by being present, they had overcome helplessness, scoring a win for hope in this season of despair.  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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