This article was written for the April 2021 issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine.
“Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”
Henry Percy, in Henry IV Part I, by William Shakespeare.
Well, we have spent a year trying to dodge the nettle stings of COVID-19, and in some parts of the world people have been more successful than in others. Let’s face it, COVID is a little more deadly than a nettle sting, or even the tentacles of the Menorca medusas that love to stalk me in the sea. Have we plucked safety from this deadly nettle?
I suppose that it depends upon our definition of safety. Life is not safe. It begins with a mess and ends in death, and a cynic would say that we spend the time between those two events trying to defer the second for as long as possible. Personally, I would reframe that to suggest that it reinforces the old adage about the journey being as important as the destination.
But wait a minute. I’m supposed to be the chaplain and encourage us all to look optimistically towards life’s ultimate destination. That is true. It does not make the transition any easier to approach. In 20-plus years of ordained ministry, one conversation stands out, because it was the most honest exchange I have ever had with someone who was nearing death (and who knew it). “I’m … worried,” she said, hestitantly. It might have been about her family, and how they would live afterwards, so I sought clarification: “Anxious?” She nodded. “Afraid?” I asked. Again, she nodded.
In such circumstances I suppose that clergy are supposed to read the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd …” and emphasise the part about, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you [God] are with me …” Well, in fact I did that, later, but confronted with an anxious, fearful person, I was more inclined simply to say that I understood, because I do. There are a few people who walk cheerfully towards death – like the 102 year old Welshman in Canada who waved goodbye to the staff and residents at his retirement home as he was carted off in an ambulance for what he knew was a one-way trip.
But generally, even the most ardently evangelical and religious person will take a great deal of care to prolong their life in this world, despite the appeal of the next life. To be fair, sometimes it is a matter of not wanting to leave a loved one (or loved ones) for whom we care. But we do like to cling to this life. Which is good, because life is a precious gift, not to be taken lightly, not squandered. Shakespeare expresses it more poetically in The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
To avoid getting morbid, let’s return to Shakespeare’s nettle of danger and the flower of safety. In the context of Henry IV, Hotspur’s words preface his death in battle at the hand of the future King Henry V – so there is not much safety there. Nevertheless, although Henry Percy might not have chosen well, risk is an intrinsic part of life. We cannot avoid it, we can only do our best to manage the many risks that beset us and challenge us in life. All safety is relative; although we may do our best to be objective in deciding which nettles of danger to grasp, and which to leave, there must inevitably be an element of subjectivity in our decisions – and a degree of hope, of course, about which I have written before.
Hope is something that is lived, and it comes alive when we go outside ourselves and, in joy and pain, take part in the lives of others. It becomes concrete in open community with others. The pandemic has been teaching us to value solidarity; and we are learning to be patient, in an era when instant gratification has become deeply imbedded in our culture.
It is not just that there is safety in numbers (which is certainly true when it comes to running vaccine trials!), but more a case of rediscovering a very basic principle, which is that a society may be judged based upon how it treats its most vulnerable members. The Bible is full of reminders to take care of, “the widow, the orphan, the stranger in our midst;” in other words those least able to fend for themselves. This past year has taught us that how we value our fellow human beings is a complex process; we may never know just how dependent we are on those around us until a crisis occurs, and we may only then come to recognise those upon whom we are dependent.
Perhaps what we are learning is something about community that is a difficult lesson in a society that seems to uplift and value personal achievement and individualism. This is that, like it or not, we hold all things in common. Wendell Berry, the American novelist, has rephrased a well-known biblical saying as: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” Our neighbours downstream depend on us to care for our part of the river, so the water is clean for them, too. Each of us is someone’s upstream neighbour. And this is, obviously, not only literally about water; it is about the whole ecosystem that supports life.
We care for the river of life in common. It belongs to all of us. In fact, it all belongs to all of us. Property deeds and vehicle paperwork may try to convince us differently, but they cannot hide the truth that we all must care for one another, and those with more resources have a particular responsibility for those in need. If we are to go about grasping nettles, trying to pluck safety, then our priority should be for the safety of all, or as many as possible, not our own individual safety.
COVID-19 ought to have reminded us that the actions we take (or avoid taking) may or may not protect us as individuals, but they may protect others. Social responsibility may not always be fashionable in an age of individualism, but it is the flower of safety of greatest value.