Last Saturday like many I suspect I watched scenes of celebration and happiness, and some of regret and disappointment flicker across my television screen with the announcement that Joe Biden was destined to become the next President of the United States. In the days that followed, despite the antics of the present incumbent, the President-elect has gone about his business quietly preparing for government and reconciliation, using words to bring healing and purpose.
In the last week I have discovered a lot more about this man who will doubtless play a significant role in all our lives even though most of us will never meet him. His loss of a wife and infant daughter in a car crash, the more recent death of an adult son to cancer, the agony of parenting through grief and sadness, all have given me an impression of a man who keeps going with quiet but strong determination, one who is intimate with heartache and the pain of loss. I may be wrong but there has to be something more than just the narcissisms of personal ambition to present yourself several times for election and to taste rejection and failure but to keep going. His prize, the office of presidential leadership, will be a hard one but one which I hope he will live up to, so that hope can indeed be incarnate in kindness.
The past week has also brought us the positive news that a vaccine is close to being signed off. Political, media and popular talk has changed from ‘if’ to ‘when’, phrases like ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, a ‘new spring’ and ‘fresh dawn’ have become commonplace.
Despite my Hebridean Calvinist origins I am an optimist at heart, a glass half-full person, so I warm to the positivity of the moment. But I cannot help harbouring a concern that in rushing towards the light we lose sight of the need to continue to struggle and persevere, to remain resilient and cautious. I cannot help but agree with clinicians and commentators who urge us to remember that the path ahead is one which requires us to continue to abide by what we know works, namely the need to act in a way which suppresses the virus. Doubtless we will hear of more vaccines able to offer positive hope of a return to a new normality, but they are a horizon to pull us forward not a support on which we must lean upon today. Our actions in this moment, in the days and weeks ahead, are the only bulwark we have against the viciousness of this disease.
I know that is easier said than done. I have had several conversations with folks this week where I have been struck by their sense that our lives are in routines and ruts, predictable paths of behaviour and conduct, and that for some getting up every morning to do the same things, in the same space, with the same people and with little physical discourse with others, has become a real struggle. It might be the shortness of days and the flow of the seasons into coldness, but I detect a real weariness and tiredness. Many are desperately wanting something new and novel, something which disrupts our familiarity and the pattern of our hours, something unplanned and unexpected.
Yet deep within me I know the truth that we have to remain steadfast and despite all the difficulties, and doubtless the times of failure and disappointment ahead, the only way in which we can achieve a positive future is by our own hands and behaviour. This is the time for perseverance not for letting up, losing control, or falling away.
I was a teenager when on a wet afternoon Edwin Morgan sat in front of my class and read his poem ‘In the Snack Bar’. You should read it if you get the chance. https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/snack-bar/
When I first heard Morgan read the poem it struck me that this was about a life determined to continue, to grasp the ordinariness of breathing and remain dignified despite dependency. It depicts the poet’s encounter with a disabled man who asks him for help in going to the toilet. Its honesty in describing the minute mechanics of a basic task from the perspective of someone who cannot see is searing. The poet has to change the rhythm of his movement to the pace of another. They have to go downstairs slowly, and then after the act is complete to climb again. Every detail is magnified with meaning, echoing towards a conclusion.
‘Inch by inch we drift towards the stairs.
A few yards of floor are like a landscape
to be negotiated, in the slow setting out
time has almost stopped. I concentrate
my life to his: …
And later the poet says:
‘He climbs, and steadily enough.
He climbs, we climb. He climbs
with many pauses but with that one
persisting patience of the undefeated
which is the nature of man when all is said.
And slowly we go up. And slowly we go up.’
The poem for me is the essence of perseverance, the ‘persisting patience of the undefeated.’
This is the perseverance through mundanity and routine, the determination to renew through pain and sadness which we so need at this time as we face Covid through the dark days of winter. It is a perseverance which determines to go on despite all.
But it is also a perseverance where we need the help and support of others. We need to have someone to take our arm, to lean on when we are uncertain and unsure. This is what ‘In It Together’ is all about – not a slogan or soundbite, but a way of being one into the other, one alongside each other.
So, there is a light dawning into the future, offering hope to drag us forward. It will come no doubt, but we must support one another in that journey from the present into the dawn of belonging.
I always remember being told by my old uncle as I confidently climbed yet another childhood ‘Everest’– typically just a Skye moor! – that it was harder to come down than it was to ascend. There is such truth in that as anyone involved in the hills will know – the tiredness and fatigue of descent is always harder than the thrill of ascent. You can lose your feet far more easily when you are on the way home than when you are aspiring for the summit. So it is that the next few weeks and months as we move towards a prize of being together once again, that the work and the walking, the journeying and the edging to that future will perhaps be much harder than arriving at the point of this day at which we can spy hope on the horizon. This is why we need perseverance.
It is the sort of perseverance captured by another poet, Mary Anne Radmacher who once wrote that ‘Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.‘
‘And slowly we go up.’