Perhaps the Poets Have Something to Teach Us about Covid 19
Recent events have caused a great deal of uncertainty spreading like liquid across a floor, ultimately saturating every corner and pooling in some places. As a teacher concerned about how this rocking of a routine impacts those among our students and populace accustomed to a regular schedule and expectation for their day, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by not knowing exactly how to help.
I've always tried to take comfort when under stress in the words of writers and thinkers both absent and present. One of my favorite poets of the people is the Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska. I include a link to her Nobel Lecture below. In the lecture entitled "The Poet and the World", Szymborska makes several notable claims and observations in her speech. Some of which are worth consideration in the time we now find ourselves in. I've pulled a few below and offered some of my own reflections on her words.
Here's an example:
"The world – whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing" (par 17).
We live in an interesting bit of history right now, but so too have others now long gone. This "measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets" will surely stretch and test our relationships as a community of humans. Time will tell whether we have served the time well or not and just how deeply our impotence rests and whether we are game enough to admit its depth.
“All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses” (par 1).
I like the idea she is on to here. We all, each and every one of us, have trouble really moving forward in relationships because we “tolerate” imperfections in others without recognizing them in ourselves. How very noble of us to offer advice and help on how “you can improve as a person.” Reflection and maturity causes us to begin to see ourselves as others see us. However, imperfections, once identified, can never be large. This is too painful for the individual to admit. We struggle enough and it is safer to be deluded (there’s a certain amount of security in perceived idealistic perfection—especially in ourselves). Mithridates (famous poison king from lore) had it right. Ingest a little humiliation (poison) daily and you can stand up to the big hammer coming down.
“Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all of those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination” (par 10).
The Greeks had in mind nine muses, daughters of Zeus, each in charge of a different specialty as it were. These muses would appear in dreams and whisper just the right motivations into the ears of the hearer to spur action. Perhaps it’s just that many of us have lost the capacity to listen. Huxley speaks of the noise that interferes with thinking but has become so habitual it is like a hum, ever present, but never noticed any more. Doing a job with love and imagination translates to me to mean passion. It is essential to a profession. If all you want is a job to make some cash, passion need not be present. But if you feel you have a calling or you want to use your talents in some utilitarian way, passion in your profession is a must. Without it creativity is not possible.
“And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life” (par 13).
The last phrase is what I like best about this: “it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life.” Maybe it’s the whole ZMM thing that intrigues me, but I like her blending of something as romantic as chasing after the unknown with temperature. Chemistry on human terms is hard to define, ask any sports team member, yet it can sustain you through a great deal. I guess maybe it’s because I’ve tried to be a teacher most of my life, but to me knowledge is a growing, living thing-- a yeast which builds and builds and feeds upon itself (a vague allusion to Jack London’s Sea Wolf). Yet there are dead-ends in knowledge, places where we as a species no longer want to ask questions (deadly pandemics come to mind) because the answers are more frightening the darkness of the reality we may find ourselves in.
“We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledges norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else” (par 18).
I read a book once called The Mote in God’s Eye. It was a typical sc-fi read with an alternative universe and the like. Pretty typical really, and I couldn’t now tell you anything very specific about it except the title. I always liked the title with its vague reference to the biblical idea about not being able to see the mote/log in your own eye though you are more than ready to observe one in your neighbor’s. We grow comfortable to routine and to the set of lenses mother culture affixes to our little eyes. We are no more capable of understanding our own mis-vision of the world or of an event that when something is thrust before us it is a grotesque, an unfathomable perversity of truth. We cannot see the truth for ourselves, but we sure can recognize it when our neighbor is missing the boat. The God part reminds me that it is not just individuals but groups and families and countries and races. Mis-vision can be micro or macro in scope.