Warning: Contains Game of Thrones and Seamus Heaney spoilers. Kind of.
My wife is terrible at shooty computer games which, as you can imagine, puts quite a heavy burden on our relationship.
It’s not that she can’t play these games, it’s more the crippling emotional guilt she feels in turning a collection of pixels red.
“Shoot him in the face.” I’ll yell encouragingly.
“But what if he has kids?”
“He might. He might have any number of dependents waiting at home. How will they feel when they get the note from the general saying: ‘Dear Hans’ son, due to being shot in the face dad won’t be coming home at Christmas.'”
“I…wha, you gave him a name?”
“Yes, Hans. He’s from Munich and attended Arts College before getting a job in a small advertising firm. He has no connection with the Nazi ideology but has been called up to serve his country. He didn’t ask to be here but here he is.”
At which point, Hans has bayoneted the avatar and the game draws to a close.
This would obviously cause no end of lighthearted piss-taking on my part, illustrating the fact that it is fictional and obviously animated and we’ve only just met Hans. It’s not like we had a chance to develop an emotional bond or anything.
However, since becoming a dad I have started to empathise more with my wife’s point of view.
You see recently I have found it more difficult to completely divest myself of any emotional attachment to the characters as portrayed on screen or on the page.
This manifests itself in unusual ways. The other night whilst watching Game of Thrones I understood why the Wildling woman crossed her weapons and refused to fight. A couple of years ago I would have been yelling at the TV for her to fight to the bitter end. Like an ancient Roman attending a gladiatorial contest I would be screaming for my violent desires to be sated by sword induced arterial spurting.
The visceral hyper-realism of television now makes me grimace.
It has an effect at work as well. This term I’ve been teaching poetry to my Year 9s (13-14 year olds) during which we’ve been looking at Seamus Heaney’s Mid Term Break.
Heaney is quite rightly a mainstay of the English Literature curriculum. His work is poignant without being overly florid, moving without being comically over the top and is genuinely readable. Honestly, it’s the kind of thing you read and then think about for the rest of the day. If you don’t know his work, I strongly recommend you find some.
Mid Term Break is an autobiographical poem which describes Heaney going home from boarding school to attend the funeral of his younger brother (who has been hit by a car and killed). Towards the end of the poem the persona has snuck into the room where his brother’s body is kept and sees him lying in “A four foot box, a foot for every year”.
I read this to the class and was stunned by an unexpected moment of deep emotional despair.
How would I cope if the boy was was in that box? The thought was unbidden and cold but lodged firmly in my mind.
Now, there are some places where having a moment of emotional and quiet reflection is fine. Where the catharsis of a gentle sob can help to break what seems to be overwhelming emotions. A brief moment of unrestrained feeling to allow you to move on.
Standing in front of a group of 14-year olds is absolutely not the place for such profound introspection. I could have mentioned my internalising of this personal tragedy to them but I would have been met with glazed looks of incomprehension. Let’s be honest, most 14-year olds have the empathetic qualities of a brick.
As I watch the boy grow I become more aware not just of his development but of mine. I wrote before on learning lessons from your kids and whilst I still think that is true there is another, less easily identified process that takes place, one that is fundamental to how the world is experienced. It’s a lesson you don’t realise you’ve been taught until you encounter it.
Whilst I will never share my wife’s ability to construct a back story in seconds when playing computer games (sorry Hans Jr., daddy’s just been turned into minced Nazi) I will perhaps be less inclined to mock her so ruthlessly in future.