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Unseen heroes

22 May 2020

MUCH has been said and written about this country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Much of it needs winnowing to separate the seeds of sense from the chaff of, well, nonsense. Perhaps examples of sacrificial work done by previous generations are cited, to show the present day in an unfavourable light. For one thing, this ignores the purpose behind so many of those old tales, produced either to show how God miraculously spares the righteous, or, conversely, to strengthen others to a corresponding martyrdom. For another, there is enough man-made evil in the world without having to treat a particular disease, however virulent, as the litmus test for saintliness. Quiet acts of heroism, perhaps unnoticed by anyone other than God, are part of the currency of many lives, whether religious or otherwise. Mental Health Awareness Week is a reminder of the bravery that many people have to draw upon merely to function in a way that appears normal. Then there is the sacrificial work of family members and friends, who make themselves endlessly available to those suffering from mental illness, despite the near-despair of never seeming to be able to say or do the right thing.

It is, of course, fitting to applaud those who deliberately place themselves in danger. This week, we again highlight the work of hospital chaplains alongside the selflessness of the medical and ancillary staff. To read or watch accounts of life on Covid wards — even now that the numbers needing treatment are more manageable — is to be reminded of the challenges posed by this nasty infection. Its propensity to attack organs, to seek out weaknesses in its victims, to thicken the blood and prevent the absorption of oxygen, and to attack afresh when a patient appears to be improving makes exceptional demands on the professional skill and psychological resilience of medics and healthcare workers. And, if this were not enough to cope with, many of them are currently isolating themselves from their families in fear of passing the disease on. This makes the support of colleagues and chaplains all the more valuable.

Oliver Davies, Emeritus Professor of Doctrine at King’s College, London, mentions two victims of Nazism, Etty Hillesum and Gertrude Stein, in his A Theology of Compassion (SCM Press, 2001). “They both developed within themselves an understanding of the absolute moral necessity of a radical and self-sacrificial solidarity with their people.” It is a better definition of heroism than most. It serves as a reminder that selfless compassion, often quiescent, can be called forth in exceptional circumstances. It is not to disparage the headline heroism seen in these present times to remember the unseen bravery with which people meet the exceptional challenges of day-to-day living.

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