How to Live in the Shadow of Calamity

It’s Simpler than You Think

Our friend Robin Sloan, who was a part of our Future Issue, wrote an incredible little missive to his email subscribers, whom he lovingly and nerdily dubs the Society of the Double Dagger. Just like a lot of artists confined to home right now, he’s got a lot of ideas for the time at hand—support local businesses, watch these great movies, take walks and say hello to neighbors—but his main “instruction” was this: keep living. 

It is possible that a number of your friends (and maybe even you) have become expert journalists in the field of epidemiology, economics, and infectious disease. (A running store here in town actually sent a coronavirus awareness email that gave specific numbers about how many millions of people they thought could die.) As Robin says, before COVID-19, they or you did not have these jobs, and they or you probably should not have them now:

Do you want every glorious weirdo you’ve ever followed to morph into the same obsessive faux public health expert? YOU DO NOT!

So then he has this little provocation. He says that, in 1816, the “Year Without a Summer,” in which the entire Western world suffered from food shortages, a quarantined Mary Shelley did not teach herself systems engineering or meteorology, but instead began her work on Frankenstein.

It’s moderately annoying when people invoke work like that, because it feels like the implication is, if you’re not writing Frankenstein what are you even DOING? That’s not what I mean. It’s just that the big, bright examples help us see it clearly: toil in the shadow of calamity will have its day…

I should clarify: I’m operating here on the assumption that you are doing everything you can to flatten the curve; that you have contacted your neighbors and offered your help (or asked for help, if you need it); that you are taking seriously your own health, physical and mental. If all those things are true—if you feel sheltered and safe—then and only then it’s possible that you are wondering: what now? Where do I direct my attention, of which there suddenly seems to be a surplus?

That’s the point at which I want to step in and say: direct it at the same thing you loved on the first day of this year. Then, crank up the intensity.

This isn’t workism in the midst of calamity, nor is it Pollyanna ear-plugging. I think Robin is mostly talking about continuing to live, to spite calamity. If there’s anything calamity teaches you, Robin is saying, it is that your life has always been a fragile and fractured gift. He quotes from a lecture C.S. Lewis gave to his students at Oxford in the midst of WWII. Just change out “the war” with “the virus,” and you have a pretty fitting sermon here: 

The war creates no absolutely new situation, it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.

While we are right to be afraid about the many precarious details further up the road, while we are right to be overwhelmed by the prospect of eight weeks (?) of home confinement (with or without children), while we will continue to hear from friends and family about the preparations they’re making that we should make, too, our situation will also bring, I already know, a new spider sense for what illuminates our lives. Stay safe, yes. But look long at your babies, get your hands dirty between washes, call old friends, write some long letters, and pray. The giver of all good gifts goes before us and lives with us today. 

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5 responses to “How to Live in the Shadow of Calamity”

  1. Jen says:

    Amen to that! thanks E!

  2. David Zahl says:

    first of all, that featured image is for the ages. Secondly, the Lewis quote (mercifully not the Atomic Bomb that’s been everywhere) is glorious. But thirdly, the post strikes me as an example of what it’s advocating – such inspired writing! Thank you E

  3. Wendy says:

    Thank you so much!
    “But look long at your babies, get your hands dirty between washes, call old friends, write some long letters, and pray. The giver of all good gifts goes before us and lives with us today. ” Amen! Thank God!

  4. Amanda McMillen says:

    Love this Ethan! I was having the same thoughts this week. I woke up one day and thought, you know what, I think I’m gonna let the scientists and doctors be the ones to focus all of their energy on knowing everything about this. lol.

  5. Jim McNeely says:

    Nice! It reminds me of a recording of music by written by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps! Incredible stuff. It also reminds me that after I had visited Auschwitz, it wasn’t until I was in therapy 20 years later that I realized that I was allowed to let negative circumstances challenge me. I used that experience as my standard of true suffering, which was never fair to myself. It was a real release. So now, I know that this pandemic is a true challenge to my felicity, and that’s OK.

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