“It’s like in the war,” says Mum. “In the Blitz, everyone worked together and was far more cheerful than usual.”
That is my mother’s take on the crisis gripping the world at the moment. She was a ten-year-old girl living in London when the Germans were bombing the city day and night and as an 87 year old now, she remembers it all vividly.
And this ties in with how many historians and social commentators reflect on war –that for all its evils and horrors, it gives rise to so many excellent qualities in the general populace. People invariably become kinder and more outward looking, caring for their neighbours. They find their courage tested and are often surprised by how brave they can be. They certainly become more grateful for the good things they have and more prudent in their use of resources. People are forced to simplify their lives and often re-discover a delight in simpler, plainer things. The self-important bustle of the world is shown to be the flimsy sham it always was and the best things in life – comradeship, duty, tranquillity and love – reappear in their true loveliness.
Of course in a war, all this is overshadowed by the great and undeniable evil of hostility; the fact that wars always involve a great many humans being very evil and wicked to others – invading their land, stealing their goods and their rights, murdering and killing and unleashing horrors on the world.
But here today, we have a strange situation – the conditions of a society besieged by war – but not the moral evil of a human enemy. In this, strange as it may seem, we can regard ourselves as fortunate. For if what my mother and the historians say is true about war-time conditions, so much good can come from this in the way we live our lives, without the need for an evil tyrant, a Hitler or a Stalin, to act as the aggressor.
Already people are finding, as in war time, that there is a strange cheerfulness and camaraderie amongst friends and colleagues – there is even a sort of admirable jokiness between strangers in the street or in the shops as they pretend to bump elbows and find it funny.
Already people are thinking more carefully about resources, about food and household goods, and making a little go further.
Already people are accepting a disappointment or a change of plans with better grace and more philosophical resignation than they would have a month ago.
People are adapting, innovating, hunkering down, thinking of taking up painting or gardening or the piano or crosswords… or getting those roof gutters cleaned… and enriching their lives in ways big and small.
And everywhere, everywhere there are new acts of kindness, compassion, concern for others… a looking outwards rather than staying in the rut of self-interest.
In a real war there are dangers other than bombs and bullets. There are the dangers of gnawing resentment towards an enemy, fuelled and fed on a daily basis; the dangers of self-righteousness and of sweeping moral condemnation and a consequent arrogant approval of one’s own virtue; the dangers of nationalism and jingoism being stirred up by malicious power-seekers.
But in this war… this war against the virus… we are free of all those temptations. Instead, there are opportunities for heroism, selflessness, a healthy austerity, renewed gratitude and always, always, always acts of love and compassion for those who are being more affected by this than ourselves.
Finally, in times of peace and idle prosperity, there isn’t much to distinguish between a good person and a bad person, if we are honest. Bad people can’t get away with much with all the laws in place; good people don’t find daily opportunities for selfless heroism. But in times of crisis and war, the contrast between enacted goodness and enacted badness becomes sharper. The moral character of each person becomes clearer – are you at heart a looter, a hoarder, someone who mistrusts others sufficiently to force you to grab all the pasta and loo-paper for yourself? Or are you someone sufficiently trusting in grace, in providence, in the goodness and decency of other people to leave stuff on the shelves for other people? Are you at heart a sly rule-breaker, above the laws that others are expected to follow, a sneaky dodger of expectations who is prone to make exceptions for your self – it’s just a couple of drinks with a few good mates, no-one will know if I don’t wash my hands; or are you the sort of person with the wisdom to realise that unless everyone takes the rules of social distancing seriously at this time, then we face calamity.
It isn’t often we get the chance to show our true colours. It isn’t often we get the chance even to find out what our true colours are. And in finding out, change them for the better. What a bounty of opportunities are being given us right now! A Hitler-less Blitz! Something to tell our grandchildren, perhaps, when the world has grown soft and idle again… and Providence needs to come up with a new hard gift for the human race to receive.
A. J. Mackinnon, Timbertop, March 2020