Be Calm, But Don't Look Away
In the summer of 1940, after sweeping through Holland, Belgium and France, Hitler turned his sights to the United Kingdom. He didn’t want to have to invade, so he sent in his air force, the Luftwaffe, to rain hell from above and pound the Brits into submission.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
This, of course, was the Battle Of Britain, or “The Blitz.”
Even though the British were caught flat footed at the outset, the Germans greatly underestimated the resiliency and industriousness of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the British psyche as a whole (Remember, the Blitz is what sparked the creation of the “Keep Calm And Carry On” slogan in Britain.)
It was the RAF who essentially saved the nation (and perhaps the war), high in the clouds above the English coast.
Winston Churchill said of the RAF:
The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world...goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
In the beginning, most of the populace couldn’t even grasp the magnitude and importance of the air battle since their memories were of trenches and slogging armies in WWI. The duel in the sky was always at a distance, if it could be seen at all.
From The Splendid And The Vile (a great book on the Battle Of Britain),
On one sunny day in August, journalist Virginia Cowles found herself...lying on the grass atop Shakespeare Cliff, near Dover, while, high above, pilots fought to the death. “You lay in the tall grass with the wind blowing gently across you and watched the hundreds of silver planes swarming through the heavens like clouds of gnats,” she wrote. Flaming planes arced toward the ground, “leaving as their last testament a long black smudge against the sky.” She heard engines and machine guns. “You knew the fate of civilization was being decided fifteen thousand feet above your head in a world of sun, wind and sky,” she wrote. “You knew it, but even so it was hard to take it in.”
An army invading faster than anyone expected, a country caught off guard, heroes fighting a battle most of us can’t relate to and a populous told to be calm.
Ringing any bells?
COVID-19. That devilish packet of genetic code tucked inside a very persuasive Trojan horse on a world tour.
It does not care about race or income, creed or sex, borders or nationality. It only cares about self propagation in perpetuity. We just happen to be its conduit.
But our “RAF” is battling it like hell. Our squadrons of healthcare workers, first responders, nursing home workers and law enforcement are our aces, dog fighting tirelessly in their theater of war. The grocery store workers, the truck drivers, the delivery teams. They are all heroes.
The debt we owe those who are putting their lives on the line just to do their job is divisible by zero.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
And what is being asked of the rest of us in this war effort?
Full disclosure: I have not lost my job, I have not lost anyone close from COVID-19, I am not a healthcare worker or first responder, I do not have any kids.
No, I am part of the fortunate crew who is simply inconvenienced by having to work from home. There seems to be a lot of us online whose main pain (so far) is that we can’t hang out with our friends, and we’re getting bored in our apartments.
For us lucky enough to work remotely, our great duty is to be incredibly dull, one day at a time so that our people on the front lines can be extraordinary.
Unceremonial social distancing many days in a row will result in collective greatness.
But What About The Stress?
We’re reading articles on how to cope with the stress. We’re told that we should think positively. That we should just breathe. That we should organize our spaces. That we should find a hobby.
And these are certainly all useful things to employ to deal with the isolation and the ramifications of the pandemic on society as a whole. We must find ways to laugh, to dance, to sing, to play, to find joy, to connect with each other. We must remain human while distant.
But, putting our heads down, breathing, meditating, drinking quarantinis and hoping this will be over soon is not good enough. We have to stare at it with open eyes.
That too is what is being asked of us at home.
We have to be aware that millions are out of work and rent is due today. We have to “see” that hospitals are descending into chaos, that doctors, nurses and janitors are living in de facto war zones. We have to grieve those who died.
When this is over, we have to demand better from our governments, and we have to thank those who made it end. We can’t just seek a return to comfort and convenience without understanding what it cost.
Being calm at home is not about detaching, it’s about building resolve, it’s about doing your part.
Life is at best indifferent and at worst cruel. Times of great loss are especially difficult. Simultaneously, we’re forced to search for meaning and a way forward, because one thing life won’t tolerate is stagnation. So we crawl out of the quicksand of our own minds before being smothered.
Of course, we’d love nothing more than to do that with each other. Bear hugs and clinking glasses.
But we can’t, and this sucks...for now.
Most of us will get through this. I’m scared too, but we are all more resilient than we know. Moments like these are simply the ante for playing the game of life. April is going to be hell. Many people will die; surely people we know. We may not even be able to say goodbye. And so, if you’re lucky enough, hold those dear to you, or pick up the phone and tell people you love them.
If your boredom is your greatest pain during these grim hours, be grateful by chipping in. Donate your paycheck, check in on people on your block, pay someone’s rent. If you don’t have the means, donate a meal, donate money to unemployed tipped and service workers, donate to first responders, buy more meals, buy a gift card to a local business, sew a mask, clap for a healthcare worker. Smile.
I know, staring directly into the light of this reality is too much at times. The news feed is a conveyor belt of gloom. But don’t shut it out altogether. Our heroes, and what they’re sacrificing, deserve at least a glimmer of our attention. If you stay in the darkness for too long, the light of reality will blind you if it knocks at your door.
Be emotionally prepared. You don’t have to stare at the sun to know where it is in the sky.
“Life as we know it” was never going to stay the same; evolution won’t allow it. But our response to this colossal dose of unplanned grit will be the future we create.
The only thing we can control in life is our intentionality, so do what you can. Hug who you can. Call who you can’t. Don’t give up. Be calm. Build resolve. Help out. Stay home, but do not look away.
To those on the front lines, we at home will never be able to properly thank you. We’ll never know what it’s like going to battle every day putting your lives on the line amidst the separation and the suffocation and the dwindling supplies and the body bags. We just can’t.
So we admire your courage from afar, fighting the fight that will define our times.
Hopefully our small, but distant actions let you be extraordinary as safely as possible.