The Queen hopes that “in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge”, but I can’t say there is much noble suffering in these long sunny days idled away in pyjamas, exploiting the labour of a normally absent spouse now at home to help with the children while I get on with “work’’. I read about the sickness and death beclouding the nation but in our house we muddle on in rude good health.
This month is our 10th wedding anniversary. We aren’t missing much being stuck at home because we gave up romantic dates some years ago. Not because of the children but because the conversation was so dull. When alone at a restaurant table we lapsed into exhausted monologues detailing our various anxieties. We are much wittier at home when exchanging hasty anecdotes as we pass in the kitchen on our way to some pressing task.
I had imagined that this lockdown would be marked by some of the firmer restrictions experienced by our grandparents. I toyed with vaguely romantic ideas about wartime food: rice pudding, fruit loaf, mock fish. But in fact the only ingenuity demanded of me has been the unlikely pasta shapes and the back-up plan when the toilet paper ran out (which it didn’t). Mediocrity has come to us all, it would seem. The great global challenge of our generation calls for us to stay home in our slippers.
The saints took on real suffering. Not only that, they managed to transform that suffering into love for the world and even a kind of spiritual bliss for themselves.
This psychological opportunism is one of Catholicism’s greatest attractions. I think I briefly glimpsed it when our babies died or we faced the prospect of financial ruin. But mostly the advance of the last 10 years of domestic life has merely resulted in sedentary ease, broken more recently by the occasional shock of clear evidence that we are no longer young: the audible effort when getting up from a low chair; the realisation that those in power are the same age as us (can we ever really take them seriously?) and the heart-throbs are now shuffling geriatrics (has anyone seen a picture of Harrison Ford lately?).
During the Blitz, the saintly mystic Caryll Houselander developed a method for managing her terror while comforting the fears of those with whom she spent long nights lying in Tube tunnels waiting for the bombs to stop. She performed a stand-up routine. With her friends she also devised an elaborate and covert project through which money and goods could be channelled to those who needed them without the recipient knowing they were receiving charity.
Donated funds were received by Houselander in secret, nominations for recipients were made to her in secret; the goods were delivered by stratagem. A starving and unemployed art teacher was commissioned to teach painting to refugee children, paid out of donated money, and fed after each lesson. A fictional public health prize was concocted in order to bestow dental care on an office worker who could get no work because her teeth were falling out. Destitute mothers encountered by Houselander on the Tube received unexpected visits from maternal nurses on their next journey offering milk for babies as part of an invented government scheme.
Such contorted efforts not to give offence to those brought low were perhaps particular to the English of WWII, and yet I suspect that a little of the same tact wouldn’t go astray now. How many elderly people are making regular use of the neighbourhood schemes offering to shop for them?
Our own parents would rather click and collect than receive daily assistance from us or their neighbours. Is it more humble to ask each day for help or to find a quiet way of doing the right thing within one’s own means?
Meanwhile I seek opportunities for heroic virtue at home, but I can’t find any. Being bossed around by a three-year-old doesn’t feel humbling, though it may – objectively speaking – be a grave abasement. And routine career humiliation does feel humbling in the extreme, but is it really? What is actually at stake in this world when an article on Shakespeare is rejected by a little-read academic journal?
The peer-review system is designed to offer a veil of autonomy to squabbling and competitive adults, enabling us to say what we really think about each other’s work. I would prefer it if we could always say what we think with the clear honesty of face-to-face communication. “Your last book was a bit rubbish, wasn’t it, Clive? But I still really like you as a person.” That would bring an air of truth to the ornate system of polite backstabbing that is most of our careers.
Is it really noble to suffer such petty slights? But neither is there any real humility to be found when my three- year old demands that I crawl on the floor to be fed mud stew. I am merely submitting to the demands of her sensible reality – a reality entirely self- consistent and without guile. There are no heroes in this house.
Bonnie Lander Johnson is a writer and academic
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