Writers of the past have already given us the insight and strength to understand 2020. There is nothing new under the sun, and all thoughts have been expressed before; we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors yet do not look to them as often as we should to unravel the torment of the modern world. You see, we may feel our time is one of uniqueness and unprecedented troubles, but the reality is a stark contrast. And as ever, the writers, the poets, and playwrights of the past have the words to express our contemporary circumstance in a way that contemporary artists appear unable.
This has been a year in which our governments have inculcated fear. They have sought to make us cower in our homes. Fear of COVID. Fear of President Trump. Fear of the Marxists burning cities to the ground. And even fear of not conforming to the slogans of the radical left. It is the signature that will define 2020, and it has rarely been so important for us to continue our lives in bravery.
With this in mind, perhaps we can examine the present human condition through the eyes of those long gone, and to start, who better than the Father of History, Herodotus? Two notable quotes spring to mind. “Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing.” This seems apropos for 2020; we are locked in a battle between tyranny and freedom, and for perhaps one of the few times in history, we are as well-read and understand quite as much as our supposed masters. We see hypocrisy exposed as politicos of all stripes warn us to stay at home, shutter our businesses for fear of COVID, and even send us to jail. Yet, they then gallivant merrily at pricey restaurants or vacation with friends while we, the subjects, are beholden to the law.
We know so much, yet have so little control. Still there are some of us who refuse to be cowed. Whether it is small acts of rebellion or non-compliance, from not wearing a mask when in the streets to visiting aged relatives against government advice and diktat, these small heroic acts are once again best defined by Herodotus. He wrote in the fourth century BC:
“It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half the evils we anticipate than to remain in cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen.”
This may be a year defined by fear. Fear of COVID, fear of tyranny, fear of the very weather itself, but Herodotus urges us to cast fears aside and to boldly face the reality that will not be half so bad as the propaganda and hype.
Behind this aura of fear is the threat of tyranny, but tyranny for our own good, apparently. We are to be coddled and made safe just so long as we submit to the terror and allow those in power to make our decisions for us. The fabulous author C.S. Lewis outlined this encroaching tyranny of care. He wrote:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
Lewis puts in a single paragraph what other writers take volumes of text to express. He pinpoints precisely that those who seek control are not always bad souls, but rather ideologues who have forgotten that each man and woman is an individual who has agency and determination. As Aldous Huxley’s John the Savage in Brave New World might say of the multitudinous fears imposed from on high: I claim them, I claim them all.
Another writer who gets to the heart of the matter in a short time is Emily Dickinson. Her single quatrain poem, “A Darting Fear,” forces us to examine if it is merely the shadows of night and mind that keep us hooked into the fear matrix:
A darting fear—a pomp—a tear—
A waking on a morn
To find that what one waked for,
Inhales the different dawn.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Try as they might, the governments and organizations that would see us pacified and afraid forget that the human spirit really is greater than all that can be thrown at it. We are not weak spectators, agog at our own world, but living and wonderful beings who have choices.
The fifth verse of September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden, written on the outbreak of World War II, speaks of desperation and dread. But taken as a single moment, it can be a rallying cry to cast away the imposed shackles of fear, and to adopt a Blitz Spirit in the face of uncertainty. It reads:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
And this is where we must leave the year 2020 behind. We must forget the fear that has been foisted upon us, let the music play on, keep the lights burning, and continue to live our lives strongly and bravely against all that has been cast. For a new year is about to begin, and with it, a new hope.
Read more from Mark Angelides.