Siege Diaries 5/15/2020


Spes, que gaudio futurorum cor letificat, expellit iram, que presenti miseria mentem conturbat.

Hope, by which the heart is lightened by the joy of future things, drives out Wrath, which through present misery disturbs the mind.

—Simon de Hinton, Ad instructionem iuniorem

I think this is the first time I’ve quoted the work I spent five years of my life poring over as a doctoral student.  Simon de Hinton’s practical summa was designed to teach young Dominicans the basic theological knowledge they would need to know to get their preacher’s license, and the very last section, the shortest in the book, concerns the Vices. (A longer section on the Virtues precedes it).  The quote above demonstrates the common medieval idea of the confessor as the physician of the soul, who might prescribe cures for the vices of everyday life consisting of the application of the corresponding curative virtue.  In the case of Wrath, the cure is Hope.  In this context, the hope is usually that of salvation, but I’ve always thought this had a much larger application, and I’ve seen it a lot recently.

Two months into this pandemic, I see a lot of frustration and anger in the world, including among my friends, who are some of the kindest, most compassionate people I know.  I don’t tend to have friends who are jerks, but I do have friends who are humans, and I don’t see most of their hidden struggles.  I feel these emotions myself.  It’s so easy to get frustrated with people who won’t follow the directional lines in the grocery store, or who don’t seem to “get” physical distancing.  It’s easy to rage at those people who “think the rules don’t apply to them” as I do everything to follow them myself, cognizant of what’s at stake.  I get frustrated at those who seem to think that a gradual reopening means that within a month or two we’ll all be back to “normal”  I get frustrated at those who seem to think you can bargain with a virus, and angry at those who think that because they’re in a low-risk group, they’re not vulnerable.

The quote above implies that Hope is a cure for this type of anger.  But how can we have hope, when the future is so cloudy?  When lives are at state if people do not comply with public health asks?  When all the things we planned for our lives are on hold, and there’nothing to look forward to?

Hard questions, yes.  And the simplistic application of hope as a miracle cure simply won’t work.  But hope is an active virtue.  Rabbi Mark Miller contrasts it with optimism, which he sees as passive.  “Hope, in contrast, is the confidence that there is ultimate meaning even when things don’t work out as we thought. Hope is the faith that everything evolves to the good in the fullness of time, even if we are disappointed today. Hope is more than optimistic wishful thinking. It is solidly rooted in truth. It drives us to action even in dark periods.”

So hope is more than wishing that something will be different in the future.  It’s based on the idea that the actions that we take will lead us to find meaning even in the sad, the tragic, or even just the change in plans.

Consider this–what we’ve accomplished in just a short time–how communities have stepped forward to support each other.  How most of us have come to understand that the actions we take can help protect the vulnerable.  How businesses have begun to learn how important their people are, and are learning to protect them. How suddenly “cheap” is being replaced by “safe” as the driving concern in the performance of services or the purchase of goods.

Is everyone at the same place on this curve?  No.  (And indeed, there are some who are openly mocking it–luckily, in this country, they are a tiny minority). But they are on that learning curve.  And as much as I would like to think I’ve always been ahead of that curve, I haven’t.  I thought when the lockdown started we might be somewhere “normal” in maybe three months.  I remember commenting negatively about people wearing masks in my last few days in downtown Toronto that “masks are for sick people.”   And as things have developed, I have at time railed at people who were either naive or clueless, and at the core my anger was tooted in my own inconvenience–at the things I wouldn’t get to do because buddy at the supermarket got too close to me.

What is pulling me out of that mindset are two things.  First, I cannot possibly practice active hope if I am bogged down in the idea of what I have lost.  That future is still out there.  It may not look like what I’d wanted it to, but I cannot let the best be the enemy of the good.  I wrote two days ago about “lemonade”.  There are opportunities like those everywhere now–not ones that will necessarily replace the activities I love, but opportunities that might present new pathways to take.

The second is the idea of kindness.  So, perhaps the supermarket is full of people who don’t “get” physical distancing.  But yet, we must be doing something right, because this pandemic hasn’t exploded out of control, despite all of the mistakes that have been made. We’re learning.  Some of us learn more quickly than others.  Some of us went to grad school and learned how to critically analyze information, or have science backgrounds, and so we adapt and respond quickly.  But it’a form of privilege.  It does me no good to rage at the people on the trails that don’t quite know how to get over to the side when coming across another hiker, or how to wear a mask properly, or who think they can bargain with the virus. It really can’t be emphasized enough that most people have no idea how viruses work.  I can’t control the lives of strangers.  I can only control my own response, and perhaps influence the responses of friends.  And I can lead by example.

We’re learning. Some of us are going to learn more quickly because we’re front-line workers, or because we have loved ones impacted by illness.  But our wrath at others for not learning quickly enough does us no good.  That’s really hard to say–because I’ve raged and will continue to rage at “idiots.”  Some of them are idiots.  Most of them are just people who don’t quite yet understand.  It’s easy for me, with my constant radio-listening and news-reading–habits of very many years–to be informed, to assess risk in a knowledgeable way.  Most people aren’t there–but most are not willfully ignorant.  My compassion for them is that I fear that in the end, they will learn the hard way and understand only too well.  And so, I’m kind.  I wear my mask.  I get out of the way at the two-abreasters on the park trail. I try to kindly correct misinformation online, and to share items I have read and thought about.  And I admit when I’m wrong.  Because the key in learning is that we need to help each other to adjust our behaviour, and kindness ensures more than anything else that behaviour has a real chance to change.

And yes, I’m still getting frustrated at people not doing it right.  I wish people would learn faster, and not have to learn the hard way. I let myself feel those things, and then move forward with kindness–but also with honesty, where needed.  And that’s my greatest hope–that others will do as I do, and we’ll eventually get through these changes, and learn to better protect each other, while accepting that we can’t be perfect.

I’ve used the example of blackout curtains to describe what we’re trying to do to stop the spread of the virus.  But that’s not quite the right analogy–because during the Blitz, people heard the planes.  They saw the damage from the bombs first hand.  But here, there are no planes to see or hear, and the damage from this pandemic isn’t as obvious as a smoking bomb crater.

We’re learning. We’ve come so far in the past two months, but we’re far from done yet.

Today’s historical event is the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th String Quartet (which I’m listening to right now) in 1960  It’s his shortest quartet, and dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Nina.  It’s part of an interesting sequence–the following quartet, #8, is dedicated to the “victims of fascism” but is widely believed to be autobiographical, while the 9th is dedicated to Shostakovich’s third wife, Irina.   Shostakovich’s first marriage is often described as “stormy”–and it seems to have been so in his earlier years, when he and Nina married, divorced, and shortly remarried after the birth of their daughter, but after that, the two of them settled into a close partnership.  It was, however, an open marriage by mutual agreement, with both of them having other relationships.

Wendy Lesser says about the 7th:  “If the Sixth Quartet is in part about the discomfort of happily surviving one’s dear dead, the Seventh is (among other things) about the comfort of truly mourning them. That such mourning might contain an element of envy or longing–a sense of being left out in the cold, condemned to survive–should not surprise us at all, for Shostakovich is the master of having it both ways, of looking simultaneously toward life and death.”  There’s a reason why, I think, it resonated strongly for me today.