If one is lucky enough to still be in good health, avoiding hunger, loneliness or destitution, now is a perfect moment to take stock of what really matters in one’s life. The virus is a strict, unseen disciplinarian for those alive and well, and a merciless, indiscriminate reaper for those dead or about to die.
Carnage on this scale across continents is simply beyond our imagination and comprehension. Natural disasters occur, bridges fall, factories leak noxious gases – to these local nightmares we have become inured, living as we do on a carpet of 24-hour world news reports. But a pandemic, now that belongs to Biblical times, to the Black Death, to the First World War. Camus was drawn to the plague as an existential horror writer in the last century. Mirror, mirror on the wall – how am I doing?
In prepandemic times, our working days were subject to routines which, for better or for worse, gave us and our families our daily bread. Caring could often be “outsourced” to the hospitals for the sick, to nursing homes for the aged, and crèches for young children. We depended on such bedrock institutions so that our overfilled days would work at all. We were totally blind to the fragility of such a well-structured world. We now know better!
Disconnection from such established routines, self-isolation from all but immediate family, has left us with time on our hands – but what has it done to our minds? Self-isolation must lead to self-introspection. No outsider can lead us in this journey into ourselves in search of who we truly are. At the outset, it may seem daunting because it is into the unknown – or certainly untried. Our guide should not be fear. Resourcefulness in the face of adversity is built into our genes. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. Inspiration and imagination, like undiscovered seams of coal, are there to be mined.
Bravery, compassion, charity and love, biblical virtues are there to be the traffic signs leading to a life beyond this tragedy in which we find ourselves.
“The Truly Great”, to which Spender refers in the poem I set out below, are not just the famous names of science and humanity from the past, but the nursing staff, delivery staff, bus drivers and firemen, who are putting their own lives on the block every day so we shall pull through and be safe.
The lump in the throat we sense when we read the poem joins us at that moment with how nurses and doctors must feel on putting on their protective equipment at the beginning of each shift.
If the virus teaches us to see ourselves as we truly are, and to appreciate the truly great, then it will have taught us a lesson for post-pandemic life.
Mirror, mirror, please keep hanging in there till our travails are over!
The Truly Great
By Stephen Spender
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious, is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
Stephen Spender, “The Truly Great” from Collected Poems 1928-1953
Copyright © 1955 by Stephen Spender.
Source: Collected Poems 1928-1953 (Random House Inc., 1955)