April 16. Many of us still struggling to stay on the right side of the middle-age / old-age boundary have discovered that one of the least acceptable consequences of the coronavirus crisis has been the enforced passivity.
It is not so much that there is nothing to do all day long. Even when teaching students or administering universities, I have always spent long periods in isolation, in libraries or at my desk. The garden is an infinite task; nothing is ever in order for more than a week, particularly as Spring takes hold. It is rather that I can do so little to respond to the crisis, other than going back to my desk to write more articles and blogs, and prepare to make the transition from the first to the second draft of history. Although it is obviously far less dangerous to be outside a care home than inside one, there is a general sense that those of my age are now fit only to be looked after.
In terms of friends and relations who are in trouble, either with coronavirus, or some parallel health problem made worse by the pandemic, I would expect to ease my anxiety by making a visit or undertaking some other intervention. When my old colleague fell seriously ill with cancer in his home near Edinburgh last autumn, my wife and I twice drove three hundred miles north to render such support as we could. Whatever good it did him, we somehow felt that the misfortune had been given a frame by our effort, a pattern that could be managed. Now we just keep in touch with an occasional email which my friend, understandably enough as he lies in his hospital bed, is not great at responding to.
As my household is one of the million or so forbidden by the NHS to go out for any purpose, there is almost nothing we can do for anyone else, other than redirect, through a neighbour, unwanted weekly Government provision boxes to the local food bank. Our world is now divided into helpers and helped, and perforce, we are in the latter group.
As others have discovered, being helped requires a mind-set which is not easy to acquire, particularly if, on a daily basis, you are generally fit. It’s an old question, is it better to give or receive? The wise always reply the former, and there is truth in that. Gratitude without reciprocity can be a hard virtue to learn. In better times there is always the prospect, however distant, of returning the favour. When exchange declines into dependency, an effort has to be made not to let embarrassment become the dominant emotion. Everyone whose increasing age and declining health has forced them to abandon their own home knows about this. If only temporarily, we are getting an unwelcome preview of this circumstance.
At a more mundane level, it would be so good to get out of the house and undertake some practical assistance. There can be no surprise that the appeal for volunteers to help out the NHS was so heavily oversubscribed. How content I would be if I could spend my days driving about collecting and delivering. There is a Postman Pat hiding deep inside all of us.