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We mobilise our best self in response to challenge. It is remarkable how often our best self is activated and called into service even in unexpected situations of crisis or emergency, such as the global health pandemic of Covid-19. This is a situation that was not brewing for a long time, one that we saw coming, but rather a bolt from the blue. It has taken some time, understandably enough, to appreciate what is happening, to come to grips with its implications. Above all, it calls us to rise to the challenge, to find a way to keep going, to play our part in turning things around. We achieve nothing by feeling sorry for ourselves, by retreating into some remote bunker (real or imaginary), giving way to negative sentiment, and self-destructing with self-defeating patterns of behaviour, feeling stranded, empty, lost, lacking in purpose, fearful and fretful.
Sometimes we take on a challenge because we have to, like this one, and engage with it, owning it and acknowledging that there is something of real substance in it. For there is more at stake than meets the eye. Indeed, it can take on a very deep and personal value. It can summon the best in us, releasing a flow of unexpected, latent energy to cross some threshold within oneself, so that life quickens and picks up pace. You sweep past the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ and you happily connect with some elemental capacity within yourself. You come into your own, as it were, find your ‘mojo’, your hidden treasure, the best within you. You get things done, and done very well, without moaning or groaning. You succeed in touching some creative centre in yourself. You hit on a rare balance between risk and opportunity. It may be at times like this that we take, as never before, individual responsibility for our lives, to define for ourselves who we are, and what we want to do with our lives. We don’t ‘inherit’ a life any more: we are expected to make it for ourselves. Crucially, we recognise that while the seismic event has turned the whole world upside down, it can also become an engine that generates personal growth and wisdom. We somehow manage to ‘flip’ time – repositioning the crisis, not as an end, but as the beginning of something new. We turn on a light rather than curse the darkness! Pope Francis expressed the hope that the pandemic might be an opportunity for people “to rethink their lives”.
In such an unprecedented moment as this our negativity bias can run wild and plunge us into cycles of languishing, allowing negative emotions to get too powerful a grip on us. It is important, then, that we have the ability to ramp up the positive and counter the negative effects of uncertainty and loss of control of significant aspects of our daily lives. While the role of negative emotions is to narrow our reactions to tightly patterned instinctual responses - ‘contract and react’ – positive emotions do precisely the opposite: they ‘broaden and build’ our menu of possible responses. We all know from experience how easy it is to slip into the negative, being anxious, sad, irritable, bored and stressed. More often than not, this happens when we allow ourselves to go on automatic – just going through the motions of daily life. This, all too frequently, means that our attention is absorbed by our negative emotions. The positive, on the other hand, manifests itself in feeling happy, engaged, interested, excited, energised, contented, counting our blessings. Whether we take the high road or the low road, the crisis has to be integrated into our life narrative.
I’m convinced the whole coronavirus affair is a stray visitation of grace. We are coming to appreciate the gift of brotherhood with a fresh-eyed awakening. We seem to have embraced the new script of our lives with unaccustomed calm and resilience, indeed, with a degree of enthusiasm, and instead of proceeding to grind one another, we are extraordinarily kind and attentive and empathetic. In spite of the apparent “dullness” of our condition in lockdown, we seem at times to be remarkably charged and exhilarated. I notice, for example, that the four of us, evidently without deliberate planning, but out of pure spontaneity, meet almost every morning for 10:30 tea, sitting at the marble-topped table outside the connecting service area between kitchen and dining-room, enjoying the mild spring air and warm sunshine, and engage in frivolous, meaningful, or may I say, generative, conversations, depending on our prevailing mood or the topics that surface at the time. But there is always good humour, with all trying to be debonair and charming, without an exaggerated cloying exchange of compliments.
We are flourishing like weeds! Instead of sinking out of sight into our own little bog of self-pity, whining like pampered puppies, we continue to operate with creative effectiveness. Indeed, we often display matchless stoicism (if I may say so) in the face of what at times amounts to numbing discomfort and disruption to our normal lives. On Good Friday, it took me two hours to do a routine shopping at ex-Simply Market. Having left the house just after 8 a.m., some 25 minutes before opening time, I encountered about 15 people already in the queue. Afterwards many more came along and the queue must have been considerably extended. As I stood there, I could not but notice the despair on the faces of many who came and saw the length of the queue, some uttering understandable expletives, others walking away in disgust, opting instead for Pam, another supermarket, where a much smaller queue was forming. There is no point in folding, becoming morose, melancholy or embittered, no use either in depending on the gritty-eyed fuel of caffeine (or something stronger) or nervous energy to rouse our deflated and flattened spirits. Of course, there is always the prickle of irritation. Of course, it’s a tiresome inconvenience. But the present situation is not permanent and fatal (at least not universally), but transitory and curable. Life after all isn’t some board game with a set number of cards and answers. Every situation is different. The experience of Covid-19 is certainly unique; we are in uncharted waters.
It is imperative that joylessness and lassitude do not define our response to this enigmatic challenge. It’s no use protesting: ‘This shouldn’t be happening! It’s as if my script’s been torn up, it’s as if someone’s rung down the curtain in the wrong place and now I’ve no lines, no part, nothing’. Chaos has broken into our ordered lives and no drawn lines could have stopped it. Nor is it a question of turning ourselves into martyrs. Needless to say, sheer bloody-mindedness, liberally seasoned with a dose of sadism would hardly be a viable recipe for survival or peaceful coexistence. Being cranky and cantankerous will only exacerbate the situation. I remember, at the outset of this crisis, staring in stunned confusion at the harrowing scenes and being suddenly exposed to the vast reality of death, recalling the medical principle PRIMUM NON NOCERE (First do no harm). It’s always a good place to start and then build healthy relationships on that. Yes, we would be confined to our homes for an indefinite period and would have to make the most of our companionship and our brotherhood, perhaps stretched and tested as never before, supported by lively faith and an unfailing hope. To be upbeat, with bounce and charm and look forward to the future. Living with optimism, dredging up all our strength --somehow summoning the nerve to go on. With no fuss and a minimum of drama.
At these puzzling times, we are conscious of the shifting quality of reality and the elusiveness of permanence. In the midst of it all I often gaze at Kevin Callaghan in unstinted admiration. He is unimpeachably outstanding, with all of his 86 years. A bedrock of security and loyalty, he still continues to shop and cook, without complaint or murmuring. Working alongside him is like bringing a ship through treacherous waters with the help of a seasoned pilot. Martin and John too are a rock of support. What more could you ask for?
Via Marcantonio Colonna, Rome