When we finally come out of this pandemic, will we see beyond our privilege the ravages it had on the poor and homeless? Photo by Michael Swan

Gerry Turcotte: Waking to a new dawn

By 
  • April 15, 2021

In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, Roger Ekirch discusses a practice in the early modern era whereby Western Europeans divided their nights in two, with a “first sleep” until midnight, and a later “second sleep” running through until morning.

Robert Harris references Ekirch in his novel The Second Sleep, a story that sees the world recovering from an apocalypse that has returned the planet to medieval conditions. In a world destroyed by technology, the new world order is dominated by an oppressive authority that prohibits innovation and ideas. A world, in a sense, that fears education and won’t learn from its past mistakes.

It is tempting in the midst of the coronavirus to think of the time to come — when vaccines are plentiful — as emerging from a second sleep, as it were. The world, assailed by a monstrous scourge, has closed down, like a great beast that needs to rest in order to restore itself.

In sleep the body fights infection, combats trauma, and shuts down non-essential functions to conserve its strength. The mind, though, stays active, sifting information, anticipating solutions, consolidating critical knowledge. The American novelist John Steinbeck once said, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Where, then, will we be when we awaken? How will our “committee of sleep” guide us to rise to a better, more caring and resilient day? What COVID has re-emphasized is how divided our world continues to be. The haves and the have-nots have once again been framed for us to see, but the critical question will be whether we emerge from our slumber to be more attentive to the need for change.

The struggle for vaccines, with wealthy developed nations scooping supplies ahead of poorer ones, suggests that we have not learned our lessons well. Stories of individuals flying to remote locations to jump the queue, or long-term care home managers sneaking their friends and family in to get to the vaccine first, all speak of patterns of behaviour — locally and globally — that repeat the past.

Pope Francis once said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” It reminds me of Matthew’s blistering attack on hypocrites. “Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in Heaven.” He goes on to say, “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you” (Matt 6:1-2).

What then will be the result of the sacrifice we have made during this pandemic — akin to a Lenten sacrifice perhaps — the sleeping on the hard floor that so many have done by closing shops, restaurants and more? When we wake from this distress, will we be more caring and attentive or will we merely cast the lessons we have learned aside as though waking from an unwanted dream? Because make no mistake: lessons were delivered.

We saw the importance of resiliency. We witnessed what true courage looked like from front-line workers and first responders. We celebrated the bravery of teachers caring for their charges. We watched as courageous families agreed to stay apart so that our society could be safe. We also learned how valuable our everyday connections were and how much we missed them when they were taken away.

Above all, many of us were shocked to see how vulnerable our nations were, and looked on in disbelief as our universities and schools moved to online classes, hospital rooms filled to critical capacity and churches closed their doors. Hopefully, too, we saw beyond the impact of our privilege to see the greater ravages this illness had on the poor — on those on the margins and without resources, in homeless shelters, in remote communities, in developing countries.

Seeing this, understanding this, will we wake to take a different path? Not just awaken with a spring in our step and relief that we have made it through alive, but rise to a new occasion to be more compassionate and caring, more engaged and connected and alert to the needs of the other after a time when we ourselves were alone.

This it seems to me is the critical next step when we awaken from our second sleep. To see the day not as it was before, but as something better that we ourselves have a responsibility to create. This is the new dawn Easter promises that we should welcome with open arms. No social distancing required.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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