So here we are again, new year, new lockdown, and not even Christmas to look forward to. When things are difficult, we often take comfort in the fact that it won’t last for ever. It’s just a phase, we say, or if we’ve been brought up on the Catholic classics, “this too will pass”. It’s extremely comforting when your children are little and going through a bad patch of not sleeping or constantly bumping into things, until you realise one day how fast time has in fact swept by, and your toddler is now pushing six foot, and you can no longer always make things better.
We all think we know about time, how it works, what it means. I’m not talking about the really clever Stephen Hawking-type stuff, more the way our lives unroll behind and in front of us, and we see ourselves as beings with a past, a present and a future. We remember the child we used to be, we remember how that child felt and thought. An old friend and above all a long-term partner shares in our understanding of time, because they were there and remember some of the same things; and just as our children are our future, we are their past, because for a small part of their lives, we remember more than they do. We are all linked like elephants, nose to tail, holding on.
But it’s easy to forget that feeling of continuity and temporal competence, when we’re looking at historical events. There has been a lot of talk about things being “unprecedented” at the moment, which is almost never true. Of course there have been pandemics before, some much more deadly than ours.
There have always been crises, alarums, wars and dreadful situations. We seem to feel that because we know the start and endpoint of some historical disaster, so did those living through it, and of course they didn’t. When things looked terrible going into the winter of 1945, nobody knew that it would all be over the following year. As far as they knew, it could have been another four years….or another ten.
And that is one of the things which makes living through a difficult patch infinitely more difficult. That’s why perseverance is a heroic virtue, because it means going on for as long as it takes, when most of us are thinking: “I could only do that if I knew when it was going to end.”
Nowadays in the western world, we mostly know how long things will take. We have got used to things being predictable. We think we know what is going to happen (within certain parameters). We start expecting things to follow a set pattern from when we are little. We go to school until a certain age. Further education is a set number of years, depending on what and where the institution is. All workplaces have some sort of forward plan, more or less formal. When we start a holiday, we know which day we will be coming home. In our day-to-day lives, we plan, we look forward. And then something irrupts into that life, good or bad (you fall ill with something, you fall in love), and your ideas about time suddenly become much less structured. It’s a shock; it means a lack of control; we find it uncomfortable. Anything could happen, and frequently does. Some people find this exhilarating; I think most of us find it scary. The bigger the event, the more scary it can be.
One of the hardest thing about the current pandemic is that no one at all seems to have any idea how long it might go on. It is difficult for us to accept even a vague suggestion that we might find ourselves living like this, with no clear solution, for some years to come, simply because it is not in our power to control any of the outcomes. It makes you realise how long it has been for us in the West since the last big medical shakeup, when antibiotics were discovered as a treatment that miraculously worked for so many things. Before, the outcome had depended simply on the strength of your constitution (you would die, or you would get better, but doctors and any possible contemporary treatment could not affect it either way). The appearance of the Covid vaccines is the same sort of game-changer. Before the vaccines appeared, we found our own helplessness surprising because we have come to expect medicine always to have the answer (though of course it hasn’t, and we all have to die of something, as my father, an old-fashioned GP, used to say).
But like the little green shoots we spot in the garden earlier than we expect to find them, life keeps going, and important things still happen. Since lockdown 1, Margaret has got a job; Edmund is planning his wedding and has moved house; Peter has bought his first home, even though it’s not possible for any of us to be involved beyond seeing photographs. He is measuring time by how many walls he’s managed to paint. And lots of other things have happened as well; you can’t actually suspend time, it keeps on moving. There are two engagements and a couple of new babies in the extended family, always something which lifts the heart, even though all the arrangements to enable others to meet the new baby have become so complicated. Things still happen. Nothing can cancel time except the end of it altogether.
The sudden appearance of Easter merchandise in food shops literally as soon as the shops reopened after Christmas is, I think, a sign of people’s wanting to accelerate time, to help us all to get through this frightening period as fast as we can. Christmas decorations went up early for the same reason : people wanted to move on to the next phase and put the previous months behind them, but it doesn’t work like that, though many Christmas trees were discarded even before Epiphany. You can’t retard time, but you can’t speed it up either. All you can change (and not by much), is your perception of it. If you don’t notice time, it goes faster, but even if you’re on the watch, and chafing at its slowness, it’s still moving.
We had a most beautiful spring last year, which more people than usual actually noticed. It wasn’t a beautiful autumn, too damp and dark; but the days are shortening now, and spring is coming. Once Christmas is over, we are already past the shortest day and the darkest part of the winter. I found violets in flower two months ago; the cherry tree across the street is already in bloom. This may well be down to global warming, but in these dark days, it also feels like a breath of hope. This too will pass. With three or more vaccines now lining up to help us deal with the pandemic, we can begin to look forward to life returning to normal, even if we don’t know how long it will take, and that is encouraging. The flipside of heroic perseverance is that we can usually keep going if we can see an end, even in the distance.
We see time in terms of periods punctuated by change. One of the problems with our repeated lockdowns is that people are desperate to move on, but keep feeling that we have slid down a snake and found ourselves back starting again. Lockdown feels like being frozen in a (small) time loop, but normal life has changes built into it. This is why the idea of ‘forever’ is so hard to grasp. At the end of fairy stories, traditionally people live ‘happily ever after’, which is so formulaic that we mostly don’t even notice that the ‘for’ is missing. But I don’t think that we imagine Cinderella and the Prince going on forever. It’s more a question of all the obstacles to the rest of their life together having been cleared away, so that now they can start living happily into the future. And then what? The question is too big for fairy stories.
This dovetails nicely with Bede’s idea about human life being a brief interval, like a bird flying into a lighted hall and then out again. But it’s even more attractive to think of the afterlife being when real life starts, more vivid, more beautiful than anything we have known before, as CS Lewis portrays it at the end of The Last Battle. The Bible is not really much help here. In the Old Testament the authors had worked out that since there was zero information, it was better not to commit to any particular theory; and when people talk about the afterlife in the New Testament, they are usually trying to make specific points about how we behave here and now (Dives and Lazarus, James and John requesting two seats flanking the Lord, dividing the sheep and goats, the man without a garment at the wedding feast), rather than telling us anything about what God has in store. All we are told is that the “eye has not seen” and so on. Personally, one of my favourite comments on the afterlife is where Jesus says: “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if there were not, I would have told you.” (John 14.2), because it makes heaven sound much less intimidating. Plenty of room for everyone, but not uniform, and it boils down to whether we think Jesus was truthful or not, which is a no-brainer.
One of the big arguments between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was about the afterlife. The Pharisees had lots of rules, and if you kept them, you were guaranteed a place in heaven, where everything would be wonderful (they were not specific), and for ever. The Sadducees, on the other hand, thought that there would not be an afterlife. People should do what was right not to gain heaven, but because it was right. This is wholly admirable, but perhaps not a strong enough motivation for virtue for many people. In the Psalms, eternal bliss is sometimes on offer, but it’s partly a question of which translation you use. The end of Psalm 22/23 is probably the most familiar to most people. There are two assertions. The first deals with this life : God’s goodness will follow me all the days of my life, or all my life. Then the second goes further: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord...”, but then there are various options, including for a very long time, for the rest of my days, for length of days' and so on, but most translators opt for “forever”. When does our forever begin? Death is maybe a good place to start. Everything else can be handled by “just a phase”.