Christine Fischer Guy is a Toronto writer whose first novel, The Umbrella Mender, was set during the 1950 tuberculosis epidemic in Canada.
In The Six Swans, the Brothers Grimm tell a story that’s a good analogue for COVID-19 life: an unscrupulous stepmother, desiring her new husband’s full attention, casts a spell over her six stepsons. Until the spell is broken, they live as swans, alienated from their former lives and able to assume their familiar human form for only a quarter-hour each day. Finding them, their sister asks how to break the spell. “For six years you may neither speak nor laugh, and in that time you must sew together six little shirts of starwort for us,” they tell her. “And if a single word falls from your lips, all your work will be lost.”
In the early months of the pandemic, I kept trying to think of a life experience that could help me make sense of the spell we were all suddenly under. How should I behave in the face of this threat I didn’t choose? How could I conduct myself with courage and resilience? What meaning could I find in this alienation from my life? What came to mind was not The Six Swans but another time I’d felt imperilled: early 90s London, when an IRA bomb killed a civilian on his way to work one morning. More bombings and suspicious packages followed. Going about our business then was an act of defiance and courage, celebrated in pubs and water-cooler conversation as evidence of mental toughness. The implication was that staying home was mentally weak.
Something wasn’t right with this analogy: the threat prowling outside our doors in both cases is unseen and potentially fatal, but the desired response to it vastly different. In 2020 Toronto, local and federal guidance discouraged business as usual, and for good reason. The virus isn’t a terrorist organization that can be defeated by resistance or cowed by attitude. It isn’t sentient; no negotiations will take place. COVID-19 has a single, unyielding purpose: to replicate itself. It only needs a warm body.
The pandemic has been a bitter pill for everyone. Essential workers are exposed to infection risk. For those of us who don’t work at hospitals, grocery stores, schools or other essential spaces, the “stay home” isolation is hard, the restriction to personal freedoms difficult to cope with. On top of that, inaction in the face of threat runs counter to conventional notions of courage – when has cowering at home been laudable? To complicate matters, doing nothing has long been equated with evil, variations on “good men doing nothing” attributed to Biblical and secular texts alike. Yet, “cower” isn’t the root of cowardice: it derives from the Middle Low German kuren, to lie in wait, precisely what outwitting the virus requires of us. The fewer warm bodies in circulation, the better.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell codified the Hero’s Journey, an archetype known in many forms of world myth: the hero leaves the comfort of home to fight an evil foe, despite the mortal threat and difficulty of the journey. Strengthened by victory, the hero returns home with the elixir to save the community. During a pandemic, it’s easy to spot the hero’s journey in the daily ministrations of health professionals and essential workers.
But as we await our turn for a vaccination, it’s the wrong narrative for we who aren’t charged with those responsibilities. We need a different narrative to help us acknowledge and understand laying low as the manifestation of mental strength and community action it is. “The truth about stories,” wrote Thomas King, in his 2003 Massey Lecture of the same name, “is that’s all we are.”
Jennifer Loo, Medical Officer of Health at Algoma Public Health in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., agrees. “Human beings are natural storytellers,” she says to me. “Our brains seek a good coherent story rather than a complete one. In some senses, data and information are irrelevant.”
Fortunately, the guiding narrative we’re searching for is hidden in plain sight, tucked into all corners of world literature and history. To lie in wait is another well-established (if less celebrated) path of courage, and we find one example of it in The Six Swans: the family’s salvation rests on the daughter, because she alone knows how to break the spell. Undeterred by the difficult condition, which nonetheless suits the scope of her power, she begins to search for the rare plant she needs to create her brothers’ shirts. Even through marriage and childbearing and perilous misunderstandings, she keeps her silence for six years while she gathers and weaves and sews. On the morning she is led to her execution on bogus charges of infanticide, she finishes her task. Her brothers fly in, receive the shirts and resume their human form. The spell is broken. She can finally tell her story, and the family lives for many years in happiness and peace.
“We need to live in a world that has two understandings of what power is,” says Kim Hudson, who codified this second, quieter archetype of courage in The Virgin’s Promise, “and we need to stand back and have discernment: in this situation, with two beautiful forms of power I have before me, which am I best using? One pushes back against what we don’t want, the other creates the conditions to pull in what we do want. We need both.”
In Greek myth, the story of Odysseus’s epic journey overshadows another: his wife’s quieter feat to preserve their home. Years into his absence, Odysseus was presumed dead, and suitors for Penelope’s hand in marriage approached with greater and greater insistence, harassing her and raiding household stores. She didn’t believe Odysseus was dead, but without proof, how could she protect herself, her son and their family unit?
Her options were limited, but Penelope was resourceful: She told suitors that she would choose a new husband when she finished weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, as was customary. Each day they watched her weave; each night she unravelled her work. Their ignorance about the art of weaving allowed her to keep up the deception until Odysseus returned. With ingenuity and quiet strength, she kept illegitimate suitors at bay and the family intact.
Religious literature features more stories of fortitude in isolation: Siddhartha’s self-imposed seclusion and austerity, for example, or Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness, both in the service of enlightenment that will benefit their communities.
In our recent infectious disease history, public-health officials understood the need to engage with a courage narrative in their campaigns. During the fight against tuberculosis, they turned to hero iconography in the form of Joan of Arc to nudge public behaviour in a supportive direction, and eventually her Cross of Lorraine came to symbolize the fight against all lung disease. Soldier imagery featured in ads for the fight against polio. But how were members of the public, the audience for those posters, to see their place in that hero narrative? If they weren’t researchers or medical staff, that narrative didn’t tell members of the public how to be.
During this pandemic, the German federal government took a different approach. As the second wave of COVID-19 hit, it released a set of videos that highlighted the quieter kind of courage in public consciousness. In an interview from the future aimed at twentysomethings, an old man remembers his bravery in COVID-19 time: “At this age you want to party, to study, to get to know new people and all that … Yet fate had different plans for us. An invisible danger threatened everything we believed in. Suddenly the fate of the country was in our hands. We mustered all of our courage and did what was expected of us. The only right thing. We did” – dramatic pause, swelling music – ”nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he says, with a satisfied smile. “The couch was our front, and patience our weapon.” The tone is tongue-in-cheek, but the message gravely serious.
None of us asked for endless hours of Zoom meetings, solo birthday celebrations, daily laps around our urban blocks or increased rural isolation, just as no one asked for years in a sanatorium. No one asked for the work of supporting an anxious colleague in daily Zoom sessions, supervising children’s online schooling while also doing one’s own work, or abruptly exchanging the camaraderie of office life for a lonely, cramped corner of a bedroom. What form does our specific courage take? How will we use our time in isolation?
“The heroes are going to do their jobs. We’re like caterpillars in a cocoon,” Hudson says. “We need to have learned enough about ourselves and connected to what’s meaningful so we come out as butterflies. We don’t want to still be caterpillars.” (Caterpillars, it must be said, work very hard while inside cocoons. Researchers have found that they digest themselves, then sleeper cells grow into body parts of the new butterfly. When they emerge, they’re wet and exhausted, having literally become new beings.)
“There’s work to be done here in the cocoon,” Ms. Hudson says. “Who needs to be cared for? What values have we found from simplicity? How much is enough?”
Algoma Public Health formally recognizes this work with their Champions campaign, expanded to four categories in pandemic time: health protection, mental health and wellness, reopen safely and amplifier. “Public health is never Algoma Public Health telling people what to do,” Dr. Loo explains. “It’s the collective, organized efforts of society to improve or narrow the gaps in health outcomes.”
Dr. Loo relays stories of community members who have helped seniors stay connected and workplaces to open safely, sewed masks, innovated about use of public spaces, used their voices to influence behaviour and delivered groceries. “It’s really hard, asking someone to stay home for 14 days, whether for quarantine or exposure. To be able to safely do that means someone else is looking after you for that period of time,” she says. “To have members of society agree to take that on, to say, we’re not going to shun you, we’re going to help you … We wanted to celebrate those virtues of selflessness and kindness and generosity because they’re so integral to this pandemic response.”
I tell her about The Six Swans as we discuss the role of the public. “We always talk about our hospitals and ICUs as the front lines of the fight,” she says. “But from a public-health standpoint, if we think of the virus as the villain and our goal as minimizing serious illness and death, then doctors and nurses and hospitals are the last line of defence. Once the virus hits someone and they have to get to hospital, that’s it. They either get better from there or they die. Our first line of defence is you and me and everyday people staying apart at all times. We hold the front line this way, and not allow the virus to pass through us and hit someone who might succumb to it.”
Lockdown fatigue is real. Everyone misses everyone. But as we hold that front line against the virus until vaccination breaks the spell COVID-19 put us under, we should celebrate the courage and fortitude we’ve shown in the past year, and continue to lie low and make our silence productive with ingenuity, resilience and strength. If we can do those things, we’ll emerge from our cocoons into a society restored to wellness that we created together.
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