By HOWARD FELDMAN
This is my worry. We have become so accustomed to blaming 2020 for our woes that we seem to assume that the moment we pop open the champagne to celebrate the new year, everything that plagued us will magically disappear. Death in the family? Because it’s 2020! Loss of income? 2020! Lose your car keys somewhere between Clicks and the ATM? 2020! It’s as if no one died, lost income or car keys in 2019.
We have so demonised the year that is it hard to imagine that 2021 could have the audacity to challenge us the way that the past year has. Our approach to this year implies that there will be no natural disasters, no economic challenges and certainly no COVID-19 in the near future.
I recall reading that at the start of the First World War, everyone said the soldiers would be “home for Christmas”. It turned out that not only were they not home for that year’s Christmas, or the next year’s, but it would take almost five years for those fortunate enough to have survived to return home, worn and broken.
In a piece produced by the Elgin Military Museum, the author describes the mood. “On the Western Front, there had been one million casualties by then, and the fast battles of the summer had turned to slow mud-filled trenches of stagnation. Slowly, everyone became aware that this was going to be a long war with many more millions yet to die.”
Before long, the troops realised they were to be spending the holiday period at the front. And so, starting on Christmas Eve, many sang Christmas carols across the lines and at some spots brass bands joined in their joyous singing. The story is told that at the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” as they did. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed, they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men went on to exchange presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols. The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only months after the outbreak of the war and was the last example of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It has never been repeated on such a large scale.
As South Africa goes through the summer break, we need to be aware that, to date, COVID has offered us no truce. As chivalrous as it might be for the virus to put down its weapons so that we can sing carols along with the family (metaphorically), it is unlikely that this is going to happen. What is also not going to happen, is that it will scuttle off into the distance at the stroke of midnight on December 31, never to be seen again.
This by no means suggests that we don’t need a break. More than ever, it is vital that we take one, that we change our environment and that we find a way to de-stress. The time spent locked in our homes has not been good for our mental health, which is one of the reasons that we have adopted a somewhat fatalistic to 2020.
In a conversation with the head of a crises helpline on my morning show, I was told that a recent weekend saw one of the greatest upticks of suicide calls yet seen. Many of those in crisis were students about to head into exams and feeling overwhelmed by the challenges, the fragmentation and the alienation they have experienced this year.
In many ways, 2020 has been a year at war. The disruption to life as we knew it was severe, with little clarity as to when it will all return to normal, whatever that might mean. What is important is that we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that with the ticking over of the calendar, it will be over. Equally important is the need to take a break and do it responsibly. And it is probably just as important to remember where you put your keys. And if you should lose them somewhere between Clicks and the ATM, accept that 2020 has nothing to do with it.