Haim Shweky
Haim Shweky

Respice Finem

Israel jettisons this week the last of the (pestiferous, niggling, tiresome) coronavirus restrictions (even if the more pestiferous, niggling, and tiresome of these de jure restrictions have already been de facto disregarded by a pestered, niggled, and tired Israeli public).

As we exhale with relief at being able to inhale without fear, let us take a breath before panting ahead too quickly, lest we blow the lessons this noxious past year has to impart. We will find the current air more palatable.

I reproduce herewith an essay written during that asphyxiating time, whose message can now be more readily appreciated. That done, I crumble the paper, wishing us all a fresh page.

To a new chapter, then.

Yours, (and his, and especially hers),

Haim.

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Respice Finem

Man has been placing into his mouth things he shouldn’t since the first wormy instance of the apple (some say fig), whose incurable symptoms were self-awareness, shame, bodily ache, emotional distress, existential uncertainty, and an unrelenting hereditary headache. Other forbidden fruit, as well as variety of plant, insect, fish, bird and animal, has continued to be rashly bitten into. And instead of keeping his distance from the snake who, in the first place, set him upon this spiraled path to unbliss, he eats that, too. The fig leaf gained did not protect him from other surreptitious slitherers. Animals carry viruses; Man eats animal. Nature carries viruses; Man seeks to tame nature. Man carries viruses; Man lives among his kind. And he is incurably curious. He probes, palpates, touches, examines and tastes. We’ve been getting sick ever since.

Pestilence is unfamiliar yet recognizable, intangible yet pungently felt, hidden yet on full display, transient yet lasting. And though their forms are new, pandemics are not novel (they have been recurring villains in life’s tragicomedy). A new dress, an old dance. Crisp yet creased.

Still, we are surprised by its recall to the stage. Not surprisingly. We live history vicariously; the present, directly. The highest melodrama of the page is not equal to the banal drama of the everyday. A plague on paper is not akin to a cough in real life. And the Black Death of yesteryear is not so dark as last year’s flu.

“COVID” (nicknames and abbreviations are awarded only to what has attained a certain intimacy) has already had its editorial effect on our very lexicon (with the meaning of the word relationship perhaps having expanded in definition—and narrowed in practice— more than any other). It has given new celebrity to antiquated terms (quarantine, plague), and introduced us to newfangled conceptions (social distance).

Before a sneeze became a cyclone, when coronavirus still floated just above the understanding of the elite in epidemiology, we were enjoined by lab-coated or neck-tied figures against overreaction, not knowing to what, exactly, we were reacting. We were tasked with maintaining a mental equipoise while we went about the elemental business of surviving. The difference between prudence and paranoia demanded our special attention.

Prudence prevents or circumvents error; paranoia adds folly to the error it looks to evade. Where prudence is clairvoyant, paranoia is myopic. Prudence has an expanded view; paranoia has no periphery vision, shuttered by its monomania. Prudence advocates heightened awareness; Paranoia screams hyperbole and panic. Prudence is firm jaw and sharp eye and shrewd mind; paranoia is gasping breath and gulping throat and overheated brain. Prudence adjusts its activities with the image of various exigencies before it; paranoia focuses upon the worst of all possibilities, and forms the present in the image of the inevitable. Prudence is an extra lock on the door; paranoia is agoraphobia–the former locking the unwanted out; the latter locking itself in.

Catastrophe will delineate people. We never know what lies dormant— the person beneath the persona— until we are faced with conditions which sufficiently uncondition us. When we must gird ourselves, or be swept away by a putrid ocean towards nothingness. When muscle is worn and powerless, what remains to impel the body forward is something intangible. ‘Spirit’ is the street name for it.

We are sensible enough not to burn down a dowager’s house, to see if we will run in to save the cat. It is left to nature, god, The Fates (according to your particular disposition), to force upon us the circumstances that test character. Having debouched from catastrophe, we may learn how better to conduct ourselves during the tenuous state of its absence. Having known the frailty of a human we may be introduced to humanity.

Our version of pandemic does not rival those pestilential chapters that historians term ‘cataclysmic’ in the grand view of their field. Nevertheless, even having gotten a taste (as far as historical repasts go), we can now better appreciate the dishes with which Kleio lays the temporal table. We have successfully lived out our own tranche of history in real-time. We have been rudely recommissioned from the post of observer to the graduated one of participator. We are generationally bar-mitzvahed, and enter a new era of responsibility.

This is not to mitigate the crisis, only to centre it. One day, Suriv Anoroc, 19 years old, will certainly hear his grandparents mention that time when the global population was confined to a year-long glaciation, under COVID-19.

I admit my view of it all is contingent. If I were more directly imperiled, these strings of sentences would surely be tauter. That this is not the case is only arbitrary. While corona affects the elderly, spares the young, Spanish Flu was exactly the other way. The halest and heartiest were, paradoxically, the most susceptible. An ostensibly vibrant and sturdy oak would be suddenly felled, mid-stride, mid-street, by an imperceptible poleaxe. I attempt the mental transition; I give it up. I am left only with a muffled feeling of being lucky to occupy this century and not the last, before getting on quickly to the next urgent thought. I am young (though the addition of “ish” seems to be getting apter), sound of limb and lung, of a venturing nature, and have confronted more intimidating foes than a virus, however viral. What seems, then, to be the most acute concern for the misanthropic odd-year old is when the pub will be opening.

We are all left feeling very much more mammalian than was the case before the gate between civilization and nature was lifted. Even the hermit is not left unaffected— he has, lone soul, lost the distinction on which he once prided himself, for the rest of us have temporarily stolen his day-job. But even if national quarantine confines us to a Cartesian point on the map, we are, in a way, liberated to travel in another manner. Kept from an external, restless globetrotting, a fetish for the unfamiliar, ‘the distant unknown,’ our map is realigned and our focus redirected. The unknown does not necessarily lie at a distance. If indeed there is no chamber as perpetually strange and rewarding as the human mind, we might, for once, take the road most travelled, and discover it afresh.

Where are we going so fast? Does the office really beckon so enticingly? Has ‘no place like home’ become ‘any place but’ so easily? How many dunams to cover the inner regions? How many fathoms to the depth of a human being? Abide the Socratic injunction and know thyself. (Never mind him being a great impish dissimulator–Socrates, that is, not thyself). There has never been so much time for study, for reading, converse, contemplation. A richer level of acquaintance makes strangers of the original idea of our friends. Even family members are distant compared to the person they might be at the next level of familiarity. It may even make a stranger of that person we often take for granted— the self.

It is the quotidian and the familiar—the good meal, the hiya-biya friendships, a literal walk in the proverbial park (with fresh meaning to fresh air)– uncherished liberties all— which we come to feel most when Thanatos decides we’ve taken them for granted long enough.

We now reemerge beyond the threshold of our doors, having crossed other thresholds whose widths are without measure.

The lesson, then, ought to be clear: be careful not to confuse the outer world with the inner, and even more careful not to take either as a certainty. Mors janua vitae: out of the gate of death, life. What I have discovered during this period is what I hope we all have discovered. A more appropriate use of our time.

About the Author
American by birth; Israeli by birthright. Jerusalemite by residence. By the year, enough of them. Haim, namely.
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