Reading a day or two ago that the former RUC man Michael Paterson had received an OBE made me think that here was somebody who deserves awards by the bucketful yet no matter how many he will get from now to the end of his life the aggregate total will never compensate him for what he has lost; both his arms during an IRA rocket attack in 1981. Of his honour at Buckingham Palace he said ‘I'm thrilled to be at the palace to receive my award and have really enjoyed the very special occasion as I've been able to share it with my wife Hazel and two of my children, Natalie and Byron.’ The heartless alone would deny him his sense of achievement.
It strikes me that out of all the victims of the North’s armed conflict amputees live with their loss more than any other generic set of victims. Not that we hear all that much about them. Victimhood apparently is a more restricted field than the plethora of victims commissioners would lead us to believe. The bereaved, displaced, traumatised, former combatants, political prisoners, people wrongly jailed, those kidnapped, householders who were held at gun point or drivers who had their car hijacked are for the most part able to put their experiences, if not behind them, then to the side so that they can get on with the task of organising their lives much the same as the rest of society. The families of the disappeared who have suffered unimaginable cruelty and in some cases continue to suffer run a close second to the amputees. In a sense they have undergone a psychological amputation whereby, because they had no sense of laying their loved ones to rest, they are haunted by the phantom pains of loss in a way that others whose loved ones were buried from home are not. They like the amputees are confronted daily with the missing.
I met Michael Paterson once. It was during a BBC Radio Ulster broadcast when both of us were on the interview panel. The situation was uncomfortable in the extreme. I attempted a handshake. He was quite relaxed in his response but the turbulent thought was racing through my mind that I was trying to shake hands with a man who had no hands. After broadcasting had finished I spoke with him and asked if he was not gripped by bitterness. He related an account of being on a social experiment in South Africa a number of years back alongside former republican and loyalist activists. They slept in shifts so each had to look after the other. Trust was essential. He later explained to the press, ‘it helped me arrive at my present state of mind, which is to see the person first, and their political beliefs last.’ I told him I would not be so philosophical were both my hands missing. An intelligent genial man his attitude seemed to be that he was not alone in having suffered. True, but few have undergone such horrendous experiences.
After surgery and convalescence Michael Paterson gave real meaning to the term ‘courageous and imaginative’. He did not succumb to feelings of uselessness or hopelessness. Described as ‘an expert at helping victims of trauma leave behind their disturbing memories and rebuild their lives’ his courage enabled him to improve not only the quality of his own life but to enhance the value others derive from theirs. His imagination was evident in his ability to overcome the challenges posed by the composition of a doctoral thesis and his qualification as a clinical psychologist.
The value of human experience is irreplaceable, even when that experience has been terrible. Despite the advances in technology, take away human knowledge, experience and drive, and it loses both its cutting edge and utility value. Michael Paterson in turning his disability into something powerfully enabling confirms the thought of Elbert Hubbart that ‘one machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.’