About our responses during uncertain times …This is not a “beware the apocalypse” doom and gloom post. Neither is it a “look on the bright side” post. Rather, last summer I read a book called Apocalyses by Eugene Weber, an Canadian historian. And within this book is a passage that got me to thinking about the various kinds of responses to the kinds of events we collectivize under the phrase ‘uncertain times’. Weber recounts an “apocryphal story” told about the sixteenth-century saint, Aloysius Gonzaga.
When [Gonzaga] was still a Jesuit novice, … he and his fellow students were playing ball during a break. Their talk turned to salvation, and the question was raised: “If suddenly, right this moment, you learned that the Last Judgment were to take place in half an hour, what would you do?” While his friends imagined prayer, penitence, or appeals to a patron saint, Aloysius said: “I would go on playing.” (Weber, 46 & 47)
The cynic in me finds this story a tad cheesy, as didactic stories tend to be. But cheesy or not, I’m hooked. Not only have I remembered the story of Aloysius all these months, I’ve shared it with others in the course of discussion about past and current events. Why?
Let’s imagine the words attributed to Aloysius true. Now imagine Aloysius’ playground words put to the test by a clear and immanent threat to him and his mates. I suspect Aloysius would abandon the ball game and high-tail it off the playing field. As would the lot of them. And yet. If Aloysius were a member of the band on the Titanic, he, and his mates, would go on playing – music. Not a one of the Titanic band members survived, but each met his end while playing music to calm the fear-wrenched passengers. And here, I think, is the hook.
One response to uncertain times, particularly when defined by an inescapable clear and immanent threat, is to sing or tell stories. Picture the quarantined Italians singing from their balconies this pandemic. These kinds of responses are no surprise to Charles Fritz (1921-2000), pioneer of disaster research. Fritz, who’s interests reside in the therapeutic features of disaster, finds that
The widespread sharing of danger, loss, and deprivation produces an intimate, primarily group solidarity among the survivors which overcomes social isolation, provides a channel for intimate communication and expression, and provides a major source of physical and emotional support and reassurance (Bolding, Fritz. Fritz, 63) … The entire society talks much more openly and freely about intimate feelings of fear, guilt, shame, despair, hope, love and other important sentimental concerns of human life. (Fritz, 65)
Hence the words attributed to Aloysius, “I would go on playing” do just as they say. Shared with others, they lift like a ball or a note into the air during uncertain times.
Eugen Weber. Apocalypses: Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs. 1999. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/187771/apocalypses-by-eugen-weber/9780679310129
Fritz, Charles E. “Disasters and mental health: Therapeutic principles drawn from disaster studies.” (1996). http://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/1325/HC%252010.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y