Head’s Blog: Compassion in a time of crisis – will society emerge stronger?

‘It was the best of times it was the worst of times….
….it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness’

Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If, Rudyard Kipling

Suffice to say it’s been an interesting Easter Break. We hadn’t expected too much excitement in any case as our son was about to sit his GCSEs and had nobly chosen to impose his own home quarantine for purposes of revision. Given the current situation and with his exams having gone up in smoke there’s some delectable irony in that.

So instead we’ve shared the experience of many, performing the daily lockdown shuffle of aimless wanderings around the home in search of novelty and excitement, discovering a new-found enthusiasm for exercise and occasionally tootling off to the local supermarket for the peculiar new reality that involves. At least the weather has been kind; let’s face it, bizarrely kind for Easter. At the end of recent days, I’ve been reminded of that wonderful Ted Hughes line describing summer dusks; ‘a cool, small evening shrunk to the sound of a dog bark and the clank of a bucket’.

We’ve been very fortunate, of course, to benefit from a decent-sized house with a garden, in contrast to the many families living in flats without outdoor space. Still, I’ve found it an oddly reassuring experience to know that millions of others around the world have been doing similar things, following similar patterns of behaviour and having similar thoughts. It is true that these are sobering and unique times, though at least they are sobering and unique times for us all.

Perhaps as a result of the shared experience, I’ve also found myself talking to strangers far more often than I normally would. It’s been a bit like those occasions where through some unique circumstance you are forced into the company of a group of strangers and where the usual social wariness becomes replaced by an outbreak of camaraderie and, quite often, black humour. Think of the occasions where you’ve been stuck in a train carriage or delayed together in an airport in the wee small hours. The mutual experience of being thrown together by fate, particularly where some shared foe to grumble about is involved, often brings us out of ourselves in a socially positive manner.

Not that I’ve been indulging in illegal gatherings, mind. It’s been more a case of chats with random individuals. The people two metres either side of me in the queue for Morrisons, a brief exchange with someone else taking their bins out or giving a hearty hello to fellow dog walkers down by the Dee (in contrast to those folk who have thrown themselves into the river to maintain maximum distance at all costs). It’s odd to think that we would rarely do this before and that a global pandemic has prompted such community bonhomie.

I’ve also found myself thanking more people, often profusely, sometimes somewhat emotionally for no apparent reason. The brilliantly cheerful staff at the local Co-op, the young lad who spent the morning cleaning our windows and, most recently, the lady who gave me a full refund for some clothing despite me not having the correct receipt (suffice to say I don’t think she’d ever heard a grown man nearly well up over a couple of denim skirts). Perhaps it’s the guilt of not doing much oneself at home combined with the fact that many of these people have to continue in their work, despite the risks, to keep society functioning.

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all become much more appreciative of what might be termed the ‘great British institutions’. Having been targeted for reform and censure only a few months ago by Boris’s brigade, the BBC has been superb in keeping us informed on a daily basis in it’s uniquely balanced, professional and measured way, with 13 million+ viewers tuning in to the daily evening updates. And after what hasn’t been the best of times for her, The Queen has again stepped up to the mark magnificently with her heartfelt and reassuring national broadcasts.

Entirely correctly, the NHS and its workers have also received more support, plaudits and recognition, not least through the now traditional weekly outbursts of clapping, banging and hooting on Thursday nights across the country. I had no idea my favourite frying pan has such a sonorous timbre when struck with a garlic press until last week. The police, fire service and army have also taken new places in our hearts, setting up mega-hospitals in hours, delivering medicines to the most vulnerable and ensuring we are all adhering to the rules that will enable us to eventually get back to normal.

I can’t say it’s been all positive. It is perhaps inevitable that some people have not been at their best over recent weeks and that a process of character distillation seems to have taken place, with most being positive, compassionate and supportive within the community but also a few being much less so and thinking more about themselves. I do appreciate the immense pressure and strain that some people are under, particularly with regard to health and/or financial worries, though I also think we need to stick together through such times and not seek opportunities for criticism and the sharing of bitterness.

I would hope that, at the very least, we will emerge from this time with a clearer sense of what is most important to us. The last few weeks has certainly done that for me. I’ve reminded myself that I am happiest with my family, that I get more pleasure from helping others than myself and that love, good will and compassion amongst people will always out-trump material wealth and objects. I’ve also been reminded that taking an unstintingly aggressive line after purchasing both Park Lane and Mayfair is the only sure-fire way to beat your kids at Monopoly.

Coming back to the King’s School values, if we are able to maintain respect for each other in such difficult times and collaborate together effectively, we can continue to aspire to be the best, kind and mutually supportive community we can possibly be.

With all the talk of social distancing about, I’ve actually witnessed far more examples of society working closer together than ever before.