Anne Harris: If we want to hold on in the crisis we must let go

Covid-19 pandemic could be the trigger for us to build a better world

A road cleaner passes graffiti reminding people to wash their hands on the window of a bar in Dublin’s city centre. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

A road cleaner passes graffiti reminding people to wash their hands on the window of a bar in Dublin’s city centre. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The kissing had to stop. And that’s hard. Almost every human crisis in recent times offered consolation in the warmth of a human embrace. The wartime Blitz, 9/11, natural disasters.

But not this. Not even the unconditional cuddle of a grandparent. And perhaps that’s what’s hardest.

The grandparents’ embrace was paramount when I was a child in Cork in the terrible summer of 1956, when the polio epidemic saw our playmates carried off to St Finbarr’s or St Mary’s hospitals. As horror gripped the ghost city, the lucky ones evacuated to the country and the safety of grandparents. Now, the grandparents are out of bounds.

Obviously intimacy between adults is also difficult at a metre apart – will the short-distance love affair evolve into something exotic? Are there any sweets of adversity in this? Can we find love in the time of coronavirus?

The theatres and galleries are dark, but it would be surprising if a nation famed for its genius for improvisation did not adapt: creativity flourishes in isolation and exile. There’s even a fashion plus – “Wear gloves!” to paraphrase the Baz Luhrmann (Wear Sunscreen) hit.

But the love will be tough. We know because we’ve been here before. Sometimes with consequence so tragic it never left the Irish collective unconscious; sometimes with response so inspiring that it works to this day.

Famine

The malice of time and chance and bad politics are the force feeders of epidemics. During the Great Famine, only the bravest dispensary doctors and mainly Protestant clergymen walked into the abyss of poverty, wretched housing and the paucity of everything. Was there greater love?

“The worst hit [by famine fever] were a population who had taken to the roads, of vagrants and beggars, those evicted as well as those who had abandoned their homes voluntarily,” said the reports. So we think it could never happen again?

Fear and shame flourished in the Cork polio epidemic. The fact that it was a middle-class phenomenon (the poor were apparently immunised by their mothers’ antibodies) was no mitigation. But there was a breed of civic-minded politician in Cork which put the city and the country before personal advancement.

A Fine Gael councillor called John Bermingham, seeing the legacy of calipered limbs, organised polio rehabilitation centres. With the support of local politicians and the community, those rehabilitation centres grew into schools and residential centres, and are today that beacon of light for the intellectually disabled called Cope Foundation.

That’s love.

The psychology of coronavirus, badly managed, could lead to another lost generation

Simon Coveney’s words “to pull together, we must stay apart” are strikingly redolent of the great Buddhist mantra: “If you want to hold on, let go.”

Grandparents must let go of grandchildren in order to live to love them later; employers must cherish absent employees in order to reclaim a loyal workforce; lovers must let go of the casual encounter.

In other words, everything must wait. It’s called deferred gratification, but it doesn’t preclude joy.

Enduring the pain of waiting for pleasure is a sign of maturity, according to Freud. To experience the pleasure principle, first endure the reality principle.

Deferred gratification requires some belief in the future. And there’s not much of that apparent in the reaction of young people. It’s understandable: for all their bravura podcasts, anxiety is the pathology of youth today. Because of climate change, many of them believe it will all end in their lifetime.

The psychology of coronavirus, badly managed, could lead to another lost generation. Or it could lead to something else.

A feature of the aftermath of 9/11 was that people let go of old enmities. Crisis always offers opportunity – personal as well as political. There has been a real grace in the way politicians have allowed Dr Tony Holohan and his public servants get on with their work, without grandstanding.

Power of the parochial

Coronavirus has made every man an island. There may be consolation in the fact that self-isolation is good for us – cod liver oil for the soul – that it is the precondition of self knowledge and illumination. It’s also lonely. The big hearts of those community groups who are determined no vulnerable person will feel loveless shows the power of the parochial over the global.

But loved ones will die: death will be a reality. That is the message. And the ultimate challenge.

The Buddhists have a question. If death was your director, what would you do?

Would politicians use a crisis to jostle shamelessly for leadership position? Would the privileged object to apartments being built near their homes? Would developers continue to hoard land? Would we refuse a rented room to a refugee?

Or if death was our director, would we build a better world?

I think that’s called love.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.