Although it is true that every time in human history is fraught with wars, panics, poverty, hatred, violence, and small-mindedness, it is also true that every time in human history has been visited by humility, kindness, creativity, courage, honor, inspiration, and human love and affection.
As Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .Charles Dickens, English novelist, (1812-70)
We certainly find ourselves in the 21st Century in a similar flotsam and jetsam with a world-wide pandemic in a time of rollercoaster highs and lows, thrown about in our tiny personal sailboats in the midst of gale-force winds. We are tossed, blown, weary of the uncertainty, fearful of the future, and fearful of the virus killing and maiming and pillaging our bodies, our lives, our country, our collective piece of mind, and our livelihoods.
How to go forward? To what end? This morning I read an article in The Atlantic magazine’s electronic version entitled “You Thought You Were Free, but History Found You”. In this article, Caitlin Flanagan had written a 2020 commencement speech that no one would hear which she dedicated to her two sons and her godson, all graduates of the Class of 2020. She outlined the playing field for these students who are graduating without graduations, entering a workforce with few job prospects.
She wrote that history in the form a world-wide crisis found her father, Thomas Flanagan, when he was a student in 1941, having finally arrived at college from the strictures of his Catholic upbringing, where he could pursue his passionate love of writing. But within months after he arrived, the Japanese attacked our country at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing thousands of Americans, and within a blink of an eye her father was on a destroyer in the Pacific in the middle of a world war.
Honor and service was a big deal to the people who lived in the generation before my own. In the introductory moments of each episode of Band of Brothers, the HBO series about the paratroopers of Easy Company who were dropped into Europe just ahead of D-Day, American veterans were interviewed about their experiences during World War II. One veteran noted that two young men in his hometown committed suicide because they were turned away when they tried to enlist just after Pearl Harbor. I cannot imagine young men killing themselves because they could not fight in a war.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, World War II veterans were the foundation of every civic and church organization and another war, the Vietnam War, was going on. Since I was a small girl, I did not particularly understand anything about Vietnam, except that there was a family down the street whose son was killed in the war. I recall seeing a picture of him framed in the family’s living room, and the pervading gloom of tragedy seemd to engulf their home.
By the time I was old enough to study the history and politics of the Vietnam War, it was over and our country was dealing with the fallout and social unrest that fighting an unwinnable war caused.
There is a case to be made that every war is unwinnable in that so many things are lost when we engage in killing other human beings on such a grand scale. But there is something seductively black-and-white about taking sides with our fellow comrades in arms, sharing goals and values. Even though veterans of any war may wrestle with their dirty hands and unsleepable nights, there is something grand about being part of a great endeavor larger than ourselves. Seeing strange shores, getting out of your one-horse town, having foreign adventures. That is the romance of war for many young men: getting on with life on such a large canvas.
History bites us on the butt, whether we are young, old, or indeterminate. Whether we think great thoughts or whether we just want to slide through our days doing as little as possible. Big events come barreling through our lives smashing furniture, but it is just as hard to deal with the tedium of daily existence when everything is the same, same, same every day.
For many people throughout the world, this COVID-19 pandemic has been a combination of both: a global disaster punctuated with isolation and tedium. For others, this virus is no worse than the common cold, and they cannot understand why everyone is getting all worked up about it. No matter what beliefs people hold regarding the seriousness of the virus, our shattered economy and lack of honest, intelligent, coordinated leadership is leaving us flapping like loose shirts in the breeze.
Some days I feel incredibly grateful that I have a safe home, a large yard to garden, and a job that I can do from home. I pitch my tent in how lucky I am that, despite my self-employed husband losing nearly all his work for the foreseeable future, he is home and we face this crisis together. I have two grandchildren who share their fresh-faced innocence and their pure love and affection with me. I have dear friends and family that I talk to often. I have books to read, food to eat, and music to hear. And I can feel powerful as I dig out that dreaded monkey grass and plant a new bed of flowers, all covered with mulch as if nothing untidy could ever happen in my world.
But I also feel the loss of a shared future, a collective future, a future, as the Brits say, full stop. I read everything I can about the coronavirus and its impact. I read about petty little white men peddling their tiny little ideas about the virus: everything will be fine, we are going to be back to normal any day now, next week, next month. We are all fine; testing is perfect, in fact, anyone can get a test whenever they want one; we have all the personal protective equipment we need for our doctors and nurses and EMTs; our cities and towns and states have all the taxes they need to pay our firefighters, police, teachers, and trash pick-up guys. There is nothing to see here. All good; all dusted.
Nope. None of the above is true. We do not have a normal to get back to any time soon, and all the states–like Georgia and my own home state of Tennessee–led by tiny little white guys who govern with so much ignorance cannot pretend that opening up a few malls and restaurants and beauty salons will make the majority of us feel safe enough to go out and take our chances on a virus that not only slays the elderly in nursing homes, but causes strokes and attacks the organs of formerly strong, healthy people in their 30s and 40s. Yep, that’s the reality of how our particular version of history is upending our personal stories.
I grasp at truths and occasionally go for a ride on them. For me I agree with George Bernard Shaw’s assessment of how to go about living:
This is the true joy of life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, (1856-1950)
Yes! It is about me not being a selfish little clod of ailments and grievances. It is about me being a force of nature, fighting each day to make a difference in the lives of the people around me. It is about me being an eager foot soldier in that particular fight.
~ Anna – 4/30/2020