A SERIES OF MOMENTS OF CLARITY: SNAPSHOTS OF A WRITER’S HEAD IN A GLOBAL CRISIS
On the day of the Lord’s wrath… (Zephaniah 1.18)
Once lockdown is announced – finally – I experience a surge of guilt-edged excitement. This is terrible! Which is to say, this is going to be brilliant! Life laid bare, distractions will fall away and we will laser-focus on what really matters. Like an extended retreat, a chance to re-set the compass of my life and strip out what doesn’t matter: permanently. But this is even better because it’s not just me. It’s everyone. It’s the world. It will be horrible for so many people: people living alone, vulnerable people, people who will be imprisoned in unhappy households, people who will get sick or lose someone, people who will lose livelihoods, people who were on the verge of important change that now has to be mothballed; and the people who will have to help everyone else get through their worst days. And if all that doesn’t give us perspective on what really matters, surely nothing will and we are, quite rightly, doomed.
Which, quite clearly, we are. I mean, if we are a society whose response to being asked to stay indoors is to start fighting each other for toilet paper, what hope is there? I remind myself of my theory that all bad behaviour stems from fear, and that people are not being cruelly selfish but only acting out their fear. I think these thoughts as I check the family store of toilet paper and calculate how many days before we need to go and buy more; and promise myself that we will not replenish our stocks until that day. At the same time I check the wine, which we keep near the toilet paper, in what I now realise is the ‘essentials’ aisle of the garage.
And yet, quite clearly, we are not doomed. Straight away people start to behave brilliantly. Cards are pushed through letterboxes offering shopping help. A huge national effort is made to co-ordinate the outpouring of volunteering offers. The internet becomes mainly kind.
Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46.10)
The routine I always crave and was sure would fall into place in lockdown, has so far eluded me. Considering all we have to do is stay indoors, it takes an awful lot of organising:
Setting up contact systems for friends and colleagues.
Deciding which bits of life we’re going to try to replicate on the internet and which we can’t – or don’t want to.
Reading – and re-reading - the rules, which are, and are not rules, to check that our plans comply.
Following the news – there is so much news and all of it is about the crisis and we have to know it all.
Being on the internet – that enticing but time-sapping activity, now inexplicably magnified.
And it becomes imperative to audit the cupboards and the freezer to ensure we use what we have and buy only what we need.
All the time I thought I’d be spending on reading, music, exercise, thinking and writing is eddying into the lockdown succubus. This new activity is both frenzied and calm; I love that about a crisis, the sheer volume of apparently purposeful activity that squeezes out doubt. In the eye of the frenzy is clarity: we are in a crisis and everything we do is because of the crisis we are in.
The heavens are declaring the glory of God (Psalm 19.1)
About ten days in I manage to get back to running – and I am sideswiped by my old routes. They are transformed. The birds are louder, and more confident. A robin doesn’t skedaddle off its branch until I’m well within the two-metres distance it surely should be aware of by now. Everything that should be green is greener than it was last time I was here. I know its spring and it would be greener anyway, but it’s greener than that; much greener. And the air is brighter. Cleaner. Lighter, and yet more substantial.
Of course it’s obvious. While there is a great deal of evidence that we need nature, I can’t think of anything to indicate that nature needs us. Nature is loving there being less of us around; and who can blame her? Her lack of vindictiveness about it astonishes me (and yes, I do know that personifying her is my choice, rather than her ontological nature, but this is my best way of describing how it feels). She doesn’t seem to mind me running through her, disturbing the getting-on-with-being-nature thing that she’s got going on. She tolerates me, not hiding her treasures away or tripping me on tree roots or any of the things she’d be perfectly justified in doing. If the virus is her revenge - and she would be well within her rights - she’s hiding it well. She’s not smug or hate-filled. She’s just herself. Properly herself. And I benefit from nature’s nature more than ever because she’s more herself than ever.
It occurs to me with the force of a punch in the guts that the idea we have that being top species in the world means that our rights somehow trump those of everyone and everything else is bonkers. We have known for ages that we are trashing the planet and if we don’t mend our ways – fast – the planet will no longer be able to support us living on it even if it wanted to. And we have managed to do nothing meaningful about it. The hubris of this is so obvious now. To put our wants above everything else is crazy, and to let ourselves imagine that because we’re top species we matter more than anything or anyone else is bogglingly stupid. If we do matter at all we need to care about everything else too, because otherwise we’re stuffed. If this crisis doesn’t give us humility there is no hope for us or – much, much worse - for her.
And here is my first moment of pure clarity. I don’t want to go back to old ways. When we come out, I want us to take this reverse warning seriously. Nature is recovering. What we have known but not been able to act on we can now see. So surely now we can act; now that we don’t even need any imagination to picture a climate friendlier future.
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36.26)
As I climb down from my mountaintop, I see the problem. It’s the question of who is we. The we who need to change our ways to be able to live well in and with the world is the human race. But who the human race is, is complicated. It is individual people, families, nation states, global companies, cultures. To make real change requires all or most of these bodies to take action. We have to agree about what we want the world to be like, and we have to commit to it and stick to it. Which is way tougher than it should be. Making structural changes in our economy to reduce inequality and environmental damage is so obviously right, but it will create new inequalities; there will be different losers, different people we will need to try to take care of. Sacrifices to make, so others can benefit. There are so many things that are difficult and complicated about this. It’s not just getting everyone on the same page, but also keeping them there through the hard times. We’re learning things about that as lockdown goes on … and on. It’s tough being into something for the long haul, avoiding backsliding, avoiding the easy way out. It involves clinging to the clarity of the mountaintop moments while grappling with the complexities. It’s not for lightweights.
The poor you have always with you. (Matthew 26.11)
Every few days the media latches on to some new aspect of the crisis that seems to make things more complicated and difficult. The death toll is the first focus. People dying becomes news in a big way. Then the economy is going to be badly affected; there is general agreement that there will be a recession. At the same time, like children failing to accept that there is broccoli on their plates, no one will mention the possibility that there will be a depression. Then, people’s mental health must be considered. Then, after weeks of talking about how lovely it is be at home and have more time with your family, a spike in domestic violence is spotted. And then, after weeks of ‘we’re all in this together’, everyone notices that BAME workers are more at risk, and that people in poor areas are dying disproportionately.
These things are all talked about as if they are unprecedented, new. The crisis is something we never could imagine, that has delivered all these consequences. But the truth is the crisis didn’t create any of this; it just shines a light on it all. The only new thing it has brought is not being allowed near each other. Death, inequality, poverty, mental illness, domestic violence; all of these have been with us for a very long time. Some of them (step forward, death) are ineradicable. All of them are at least intransigent and extremely difficult to overcome. And our fear of them all is strong; so strong that unless we are directly affected by them – and sometimes even then – we usually manage to ignore them; we give up trying to solve them. They are elephants in the room; and the reason we can’t ignore them now is only that the room just got smaller.
Surely this is an opportunity. If we can see clearly the wrongs that blight our lives, the things that are so terrible that we don’t want to look at them, then we can tackle them. The mistake is to think they are caused by Covid 19. They are not, and while of course it’s vital to focus energy on solving the virus, solving the virus won’t make any of them go away. That’s what is so discombobulating and challenging and wonderful and terrifying about thinking about the future. That and the fact that the landscape changes so often that we can’t plan in detail.
What we can do is turn the clarity from a series of lightbulb moments into a lightning-rod. Complexity, confusion, and uncertainty do not invalidate the clarity. Nothing can take away the fact that our air quality is better now. Nothing can make it untrue that people who care matter as much as wealth-creators. Nothing can make unfairness and inequality right. Nothing can change the fact that we can do better than we have been doing.
See, I am doing a new thing! (Isaiah 43.19)
This is not new, either. Every day is a new thing; even though a new day can feel like Groundhog Day at the moment (and, again, it often did in the time before, too; remember? Remember how often daily life felt like a hamster wheel?) Every day is a new chance, not to whizz about changing direction, but a new chance to do better: to do the better that we can do. Now this is clearer than ever. We don’t want to go back to the ‘old normal’ of the wrong people getting paid the wrong money for doing the wrong things. We don’t want to go back to divided communities with siloes of isolated and ignored people. We don’t want to go back to unthinkingly believing that more stuff is better. But we can’t start any of that yet, because we have to get through this, so we’re stuck in limbo, with an unspecified amount of thinking and preparation time left to us. Not being able to get on with it. Not even able to plan practically because truly we don’t know what is going to happen next.
Is that right? It can’t be. Something must be happening today. Just as something is always happening every day.
They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40.31b)
And as each new day rises and ebbs, I grab and start to climb onto the little driftwood raft that bobs in the waves in front of me, and is not, after all, a mirage.
Today, I – we - can think. We can explore and examine and interrogate our mountaintop moments of clarity. We can share them in discussion and in research and think about their outworking’s and whether they are really moments of clarity or just platitudes.
Today we can practise. We can practise being the kind of kind person we want us to be. We can practise enjoying the people we’ve been given to care for. We can practise becoming humble about our place in the world. We can practise good discussion. We can practise.
Which is actually what life is anyway. Everything we do is real and has consequences, but every time we do anything it’s also practice; because we might do it again, and of course we’re never going to get it wholly right because that wouldn’t be practice, that would be perfect. Practice is serious. It is real. It is the stuff of life. This too is and is not new.
What I want when we come out of this is to be fitter, thinner, kinder, wiser and with a three-book deal. Obviously. But that’s not all I want: and actually it’s not what I really, really want. Because I could be the fittest, thinnest, kindest, wisest and most-read writer in the world, and that wouldn’t change the world (which does somewhat call into question the time and effort spent producing, for example, this piece of writing, but, hey, I am a practising writer and this is practice). What I really, really want is to be a tiny part of a world that is better at being itself.
So what I’m going to try to take forward is for us to not give up, accidentally or on purpose, on life becoming the way we know it can be if we do our best. I’m going to try, each new day, to hold to my lightning rod, to keep practising and to not give up.
And I’m going to fail and fall back and be a bit rubbish. It’s not about being brilliant, though. It’s about practising. Practising not giving up on what’s good and right and true. That’s what I really, really want.
Bible quotations are from the New International Version (UK)