A Reflection on Frustration

Friday, 15th May 2020

A Reflection on Frustration

This is the ninth of these Reflections. We are eight weeks into these strange times. In Holy Week I wrote two Reflections, so now I come to number nine. This week, perhaps is the week of frustration. A change in the message – Stay Alert – a relaxation of some of the constraints and so many people seize an opportunity that they were longing for. I see frustration. I feel it. We are not made for isolation and lockdown. It gets, if anything harder to bear, as the weeks pass. I was in touch with a friend this week. He had been cheerful a month ago, enjoying more time in his home and with his family. He was not cheerful any more. Am I imagining it, or am I more tired than I was? Do the days feel longer? A Reflection seems a slightly harder thing to write.

Something I read a while ago comes to mind. To explain it you need a bit of background.

On 30th January 1896, the French entomologist, Jean Henri Fabre, was studying pine moth processionary caterpillars in his garden. When these creatures set out to feed, they do it in single file, nose to tail (allow me that licence, even I know that caterpillars have neither). Fabre watched a large group crawl up the side of a large flower pot. At the top, they set off round the rim, and Fabre then pushed away the rest of the column. He was left with a circular procession marching round and round and round (and yes, I know caterpillars do not march). Without food or water, they pressed on and on. Each night, as the temperature fell they slowed to a halt and, each morning, with sunrise, they would resume the endless circle. Day after day it continued until, famished, they began to tumble from the rim.

Annie Dillard wrote about that experiment, in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. What she wrote stays with me.

It is the fixed that horrifies us, the fixed that assails us with the tremendous force of its mindlessness.

She was telling us how terrible systems and processes can be, how destructive it would be to be caught in something fixed. She compared Fabre’s experiment to the story of the prophet Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal – the ones who danced round a woodpile, slashed at their own skin calling down fire from heaven, but the wood stayed wood and the fire never came.

I want out of this still air. What street-corner vendor wound the key on the backs of tin soldiers and abandoned them to the sidewalk, and crashings over the curb?

What we go through now is not futile, or mindless. It is necessary. It saves lives. It protects the NHS. Even so, the fixed is hard to bear. We are all allowed to find this hard. These routines will cease and those of us who emerge from them will, in fact, enjoy the deep privilege of life and health. We will be grateful to one another. We will have opportunity and possibility. We will be glad.