Who can possibly promise that 'everything is going to be alright'? So what do they mean, these rainbow messages in every window? Alfie Temple Stroud is reaching for understanding amid the sad and strange lessons of the locked-down city.
The biting suggestion – still only a suggestion – that Covid-19 might be carried by particles of air pollution could seem (with a dash of pathetic fallacy) to be a brutally hard lesson from an abused teacher, Planet Earth.
I certainly have the sense of being taught something by the world, by this experience. What seemed apparent or unremarkable is loaded with a new significance and forceful meaning for me; like when you hear a familiar song as if for the first time, after some new love or loss, and suddenly the lyrics seem to be speaking to you.
The sensation of learning from life is familiar. I mean learning in the sense of coming really to know something: knowing it in the sense of feeling, understanding, embodying it; as opposed to knowing it in the sense of intellectually acquiring a concept. For me it is something that arrives unexpected like this, in moments of revelation or profound recognition, announced by a near-physical sensation of release and relief. The seeming suddenness is perhaps because life’s learning often comes (demolishing my stubborn resistance and long perplexity faced with therapeutic encouragement to “sit with” difficult feelings) from settling into a strange, courageous passivity in the stream of life’s discomforts. Exactly that – it is our patient hearts which will learn and understand this experience, ready to be taught by the days, without the benefit of knowledge and precedent.
'It is our patient hearts which will learn and understand this experience, ready to be taught by the days, without the benefit of knowledge and precedent.'
I have the immense fortune of only mild discomforts from which to learn; though all of us are likely to experience some grief, some anxiety. Too many currently have griefs too great to bear. Others are suffering from cruelties in confinement; others still are exposed without protection. These experiences have a volume and a quantity – individually and cumulatively across the world – too great to be contained in any person. We would overflow.
It seems this is a truth that each and any of us can immediately appreciate at present, our mutual separation no obstacle to essential empathy. The rainbows in windows, the messages on balconies, the widespread primal desire simply to be present for each other and make noise: these are proof of a resilient empathy and moreover of compassion which springs from it.
Andrà tutto bene. Todo irá bien. Tout ira bien. Everything is going to be alright.
Photo by Alfie Temple Stroud
What I have only just understood though, is the nature of the compassion that is being expressed in these messages, addressed to anyone, signed by no-one. These are not platitudes.
Many are missing: pain and anxiety are everywhere concealed behind walls and windows, nursed at home and in hospital wards, muted from expression in the streets or in the media. For many in ICU, for those that love them, and for many more whose particular suffering is not soon to be, may never be, relieved, everything is not going to be alright. And uncomplicated optimism, easy positivity, would be an unreasonable response for any one of us.
But these messages do not presume to address any one individually; do not presume to diagnose treat or ease any person’s own unfathomable suffering. The only way in which everything is going to be alright is collectively: for all of us, if not each of us. But that is something. The messages are evidence of this ‘all’, like dye in the bloodstream reveals concealed workings to a medical scan. They reveal us together, though apart; they convey the sense of collectivity.
Messages by Lyra & Arthur McIlvaney, photo by Kathryn Vickery
They are no compensation for myopia or hard-heartedness in normal times, for wilful refusal to recognise the agency each of us has to make a fairer society, nor above all for the unexamined imposition of collectively-formed conditions of suffering upon the most vulnerable.
The messages jointly express – repeat window to window like a mantra – a sentiment shared on the level of being human: something prior even to community, social ties or responsibilities. I think this humanhood is where these small acts of compassion are taking place.
'The rainbows are a direction from all to all, without certain destination, and with no specified schedule; because each of us alone has to live just where we are, just day to day.'
The compassionate action so many are undertaking, separately, is to try to enact the hope we all share. We have collectivised hope. We have socialised the burden of looking ahead, of feeling resilient, of bearing hope, because it may be more than any one of us could do, amid all the grief. The rainbows are a direction from all to all, without certain destination, and with no specified schedule; because each of us alone has to live just where we are, just day to day.
Perhaps this is obvious; but it is something I feel I have really learned from this phenomenon. And now I really recognise it in windows, on balconies, in hashtags; and the understanding of this ubiquitous, apparently vain answer to an unanswerable force, has brought a little of that familiar relief. In fact, perhaps it brings a little more. It’s a collective capacity I didn’t know that we had, carrying potential I can now perceive. I suggest this collective hope is itself a source of hope. That we can bear this together – that for all we cannot stop, we can at least do this together – in that sense, everything is going to be alright.
This story was shared by Alfie Temple Stroud, a Welsh urbanist currently living and studying in Madrid, Spain.
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