The world has ground to a halt. Except that the wheels of the world grind slowly, and 2020’s halt felt more like an emergency stop. There we all were, spanking along, foot to the floor, probably on the wrong side of the speed limit, when a shadowy figure ran out unexpectedly. There are no wolves here, but it sure looked like one. We slammed on the brakes, smelt the burning rubber, heard the screech of tyres, and were whipped forward in our seats, belts only just saving us from hitting the windscreen. Now we’re all at home wearing emotional neck braces, reeling from what just happened and wondering if we stopped in time to miss the spectral figure or did we clip it?
It’s worrying. And worry likes to cosy-up with blame; they are long-standing bedfellows. We try to train the chaos of an upended life by getting it in a head lock: make a daily planner, write up a timetable, set goals, establish routine. These are all good, and if we’re lucky we’ll fall into a new rhythm and plot different compass points from which to orienteer a safe passage through each day. After all, there’s nothing like a schedule to keep the shadow of the big bad wolf from claiming squatting rights in our head. Or is there? For underneath, we’re still churning away at who is to blame, who is acting foolishly, who is on the back foot. Haven’t you noticed? We dress it up as ‘holding to account’, but it’s basically unhelpful finger-pointing, jabbing, heckling. This government, that expert, this neighbour, that community, this family, that worker: hopeless, wrong, misguided, unworkable, inept, irresponsible.
No matter how allergic one is to whatever leader or person is being condemned and railed against, I’m certain that even if it looks like a hornet’s nest from where we’re standing, they are doing their best and trying their hardest. Our touchline commentary on who is to blame, what a bad job they’re doing, and running down the choices of others is useless, it’s caustic.
There are all sorts of beautifully composed aspirations doing the rounds about how much we are all learning from going more slowly and how we are going to come out of this with a different set of values, a new ethos, enlightened. I hope we will; but forget the about when the curtain rises on life again and this is all over, the practice starts now.
In the mid-1930s, when the world was stalked by threatening shadows and looming disaster, Louis MacNeice wrote the poem, Wolves. It’s a little ambiguous, but he seems to be swaying between the idea of living in the moment and distracting himself with the beauty of the world, whilst recognising the futility of burying one’s head in the sand as nearby howling wolves close in. Ultimately, though, I think he’s throwing his weight behind the idea of balance, and if ever there was a time for balance, it is now. We can choose to be part of a chorus of blame and start howling like the very wolves that threaten us, or stay quiet, listen, and judiciously ask questions when the time is right.
Wolves, Louis MacNeice
I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped handwriting
And young girls doing their hair and all the castles of sand
Flushed by the children’s bedtime, level with the shore.
The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want
To be always stressing either its flux or its permanence,
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.
Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle,
Join hands and make believe that joined
Hands will keep away the wolves of water
Who howl along our coast. And be it assumed
That no one hears them among the talk and laughter.