Sue Black: This is the time of the heart

The author and leading anthropologist on how times of adversity like Covid-19 expose our true selves, whether we want them to or not.

Sue Black Covid-19 essay
Tim Lane / Penguin

There is no education like adversity.  
 - Benjamin Disraeli

Without permission or warning, genuine adversity exposes our true self and reveals with stark clarity who lies beneath our thin veneer of prosperity and persona. It is not a glimpse of who we think we are or who we want others to believe we are – it is a clear reflection of unassailable truth. It demands the honesty of ‘self’, a recognition of who lives at our core and we are measured, not in our words, thoughts or public sentiments but through our actions and deeds. 

It is no accident that the most memorable recruitment poster for World War 1, released in 1915, showed a little girl sitting on her father’s knee asking: Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War? The innocence of a question from a child to challenge the actions of an adult. Yes, it played on guilt, but it also confronted the question of self-worth and challenged the latent potential in us all, that may lie dormant until called, or perhaps shamed, into action. No matter which.

What did YOU do in 2020 when adversity came calling in the form of an unpredictable microscopic virus? Perhaps you hunkered down in full siege mentality and hauled up the proverbial drawbridge to wait it out. Were you safe in the knowledge that you had stockpiled sufficient toilet paper and bags of flour to see you through the next decade? Not your job to worry about others as long as you, and yours, were okay. Maybe you sharpened you elbows and remonstrated with those who didn’t meet your standards and interpretation of the law. Did you become that ugly and judgemental societal police force of one, who revelled in the sanctimony of pointing out the failings of others? These types may have got the media headlines, but they were a minority of selfish fools.

'These are the heroes of adversity who blossom just at the perfect time'

Maybe, through age or infirmity, you had no choice but to lock away for months. A worrying and frightening time. Who looked out for you? Maybe it was family or friend but perhaps you have been surprised and humbled by the kindness of strangers, looking only to help and asking nothing in return. These are the heroes of adversity who blossom just at the perfect time when we need them the most. They are the brave and the bold who volunteer to help people they don’t know and go above and beyond expectations for no reward other than the knowledge that they have ensured you are not lonely, scared or hungry.  They deliver an unexpected Easter egg. They walk your dog.  They drop food on your doorstep. They call just to say hello and make sure you are okay. They are the bright beacons of what humanity can achieve when adversity comes calling. No great, big, bold public gestures but small, meaningful and genuine acts of the human heart.

People putting themselves out on a limb to protect, care and share. In times of adversity they become the needles of society who weave together the disparate threads of community into a gloriously vibrant patchwork of humanity’s ‘art of the possible’. They provide the hope we need that tomorrow’s society can be different. It can be patient, forgiving without judgment, caring without return, grateful and honest without reward – they have proved it and we owe them a debt of gratitude. There is no greater opportunity to press the reset button for life, than when adversity becomes an uninvited guest in our own home. Let’s not squander this harsh lesson and return to the old ways.

This is the time of the heart. We have only one life, and it is a short one, it should be one that counts.

Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.

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