As we move through the surreal days created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be comforting and inspiring to learn the stories of those who survived similar challenges which, at the time, were unprecedented. These stories can lead us to acknowledge our human fragility but also our ability to persevere and prevail when our physical, emotional and mental well-being are threatened.
We know that the wounds inflicted by past tragic events, like the plague of 1348, the Spanish Flu of 1918, WW I, WW II, the polio epidemic, HIV-AIDS, impacted the lives of countless people and often changed the course of human history. In addition, with each event, these wounds came dangerously close to crushing what is at the core of being human: resilience, courage and compassion. It behooves us to stay vigilant as we strive to protect our lives to also protect these qualities, they provide us with strength, but resilience, courage and compassion can be vulnerable when fighting a pandemic.
If life is what happens between what we plan, then the people who lost their lives, and the people who survived them during those times, witnessed how life unexpectedly can give us poisonous air to breathe, or simply, take away our ability to breathe altogether. The human spirit, however, carries on, relying on the desire to live and the hunger to survive. In the past few months there have been countless examples of resilience, courage and compassion. From sewing masks to donate to those who needed them to cheering on the medical professionals who worked tirelessly, modeling compassion and courage for the rest of us.
Equally, first responders, supermarket employees, other essential workers showed courage and empathy. Mental health professionals continue to highlight the importance of being part of a community, of paying it forward or of giving back, all actions that help us reap health benefits.
We feel the need to stay connected as we awake every morning because we remember that there is a pandemic and that we need to behave as if we had the virus.
Everyone knows a story of someone who conquered challenges that seemed insurmountable. During COVID-19, we can find the inspiration we need to move forward in these stories. The story that I rely upon is that of my parents who came of age during WW II in Italy. During the first week of social distancing dictated by the coronavirus, my 89-year old mother seemed unfazed by the pandemic, she seemed to think all the media reports and the health warnings were not relevant to her. She is naturally willful, but most importantly, she has an indomitable spirit nurtured by 8 decades of practicing the resilience she learned as a child. Recently, I talked with her about what it was like to grow up during WW II and its aftermath. She was 6 years old when Mussolini made an alliance with Nazi Germany and almost 13 when Italy switched sides and the Germans were already in Italy. She was 15 years old when the Allied Forces came to Italy. She remembers how elated she was when the war ended and how thrilling it was to receive chocolate and nylon stockings brought by the Allies.
In the past, when I asked my mother what growing up during the war and its aftermath was like, she spoke about how everyone she knew went to bed hungry, how there was no wheat flour to make bread or pasta and food rationing went on for a long time. Schools and places of employment were closed, farmers could not plant their crops because of landmines and other explosive remnants. She said that the grocery store shelves were empty because no deliveries could be made since roads, bridges and railroads were blown up, the food chain was severely disrupted. She mentioned curfews, fewer interactions with people and how the fear of dying from bombs, land mines or hunger became a constant companion for everyone and how families mourned their loved ones who died alone. She sounded lighter, as if recounting a happy time, when she talked about how neighbors shared resources, children invented games and songs to keep boredom and fear away and the days were made bearable by little gestures of kindness.
I asked my mother if COVID-19 reminded her of her life during WW II, she said “ yes, it does, this is easier in so many ways but it also feels more threatening. One thing was easier during WWII: when the sirens stopped, announcing that the bombing had ceased, we could go outside and talk with friends and neighbors without worrying about becoming ill and possibly dying from those interactions.”
She understands that she is part of the demographic that is most adversely affected by this virus and I can’t help thinking how elderly people who contract the virus now are dying without their family, alone, like the brave young men who fought in wars.
I feel fortunate to be among those who didn’t experience living during a war in a place occupied by the enemy. I wonder, however, if not sharing a collective memory of surviving such life-altering events fuels the anxiety we feel now and weakens the resilience we need to look beyond reopening dates. Becoming ill with the Coronavirus sounds as unpredictable as a sneeze, as devastating as a choking cough. This virus is as invasive as the enemy during a war, as threatening as a bomb falling too close. Those who have survived COVID-19 describe it as surviving a drowning.
My mother can tell me about how long it took her to forget the fear of bombs and that of being maimed by explosive remnants but she can’t speak to how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact us. No one can tell us when it will end or how to proactively guard our resilience and courage and practice our compassion. Perhaps, included in the recommendations for staying virus-free, along with washing our hands, practicing physical distance and wearing a mask, we could use some guidance on how to preserve our humanity.
Where do we look for inspiration to stay resilient now and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where do we find the courage to think about the number of deaths that occurred in a short period of time? How do we muster the compassion we want to show our fellow human beings while protecting ourselves from the virus and its inevitable consequences?
It seems to me that if we are lucky enough not to have the first-hand experience of surviving unimaginable events like the coronavirus, we need to hold on to the legacy of resilience, courage and compassion demonstrated by the people who experienced them and survived them. Maybe we need to seek out those people and ask them how they found the courage to fight fear, to stay resilient and to be compassionate during, and after the pandemic. We may find out that often they did it by embracing unprecedented uncertainty while letting the strengths of humanity shine through.
Iolanda Volpe has recently retired from teaching at the high school level. She aspires to continue being a learner, an observer and an interpreter of life. A former North End resident, she now resides in Charlestown Navy Yard.
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