COVID, CHRISTMAS, AND CHESTERTON’S SHOP OF GHOSTS

Our own dickensonian ghosts from our insistent pursuits do come back to haunt us

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”

– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.

The general interpretation of that quote takes it to mean “that the key to success in life lies in knowing that a tide, or simply the motivation of men, and it is up to a man to recognize, and seize the opportunity.” But that is missing the point of the play. Note that Shakespeare does not qualify ‘fortune’ as ill or good, does he. We tend to forget that the innocent and the unaware are always swept along in that tidal flood of the affairs of men, by their bad ideas and their stubborn pursuit of them.

Let us put ourselves in both the past and the present for the moment and consider some observations I recently heard in response to this article about our younger generations and their response to COVID which in itself has been a tidal flood directing the lives of countless others, including you, dear reader, and I. Let us look at COVID, Christmas, and Chesterton’s The Shop of Ghosts

I swear I don’t understand the fear of these generations. They completely disrupt their lives, barely socialize, live in a self imposed prison, and they’re not even at that great a risk. My wife and I decided a long time ago that life is for living and we’re going to live it. I’m 61, she’s 59. If we can do it, these fearful youngsters can do it too.“, one commenter said in response to the NBC News article entitled: For some who recently contracted Covid, an unexpected emotion: Relief

We just walked through a fairly conservative university campus a few days ago. Everything seemed normal until we noticed that none of the students were TALKING to each other. The few who were, were talking on the phone. Also, zero hand holding. It occurred to us that these kids had probably only known university life under Covid…” another commenter said in return.

As I read the responses, especially that last and the impact implied, my mind practically shouted: That’s one of what Chesterton would call a “tremendous trifle”! A little thing you notice but which will alter society in a big way. All of these “tremendous trifles” have been piling up from the divorce culture to COVID, some already having born bad fruit and some yet to bear even worse fruitage. I sensed a natural foreboding for what is to come from it, because it is so widespread. Just as I felt the same foreboding from when the overwhelming focus of parents doing what they did for those 30 years before, in pushing higher education, accomplishment and commodious living as the moral achievement for their offspring, allowed what we have now to come to pass. Anyone who said anything then of what might be coming was shouted down and shamed. Now when we, as grandparents, tell the truth, we are cancelled.

This recalled to mind, especially since it is still Christmas (in the traditional celebration which ends on Candlemas), that we are living in Chesterton’s ‘shop of ghosts‘. Life in general certainly has had for some time a Dickensonian quality to it. I encourage you all to read this essay (if you haven’t already). But here is a pertinent passage from it that describes the abstract of what we are experiencing and what those two commenters were describing, though unaware:

“There was still in my mind an unmanageable something that told me that I had strayed into some odd atmosphere, or that I had already done some odd thing. I felt as if I had worked a miracle or committed a sin. It was as if I had at any rate, stepped across some border in the soul.

To shake off this dangerous and dreamy sense I went into the shop and tried to buy wooden soldiers. The man in the shop was very old and broken, with confused white hair covering his head and half his face, hair so startlingly white that it looked almost artificial. Yet though he was senile and even sick, there was nothing of suffering in his eyes; he looked rather as if he were gradually falling asleep in a not unkindly decay. He gave me the wooden soldiers, but when I put down the money he did not at first seem to see it; then he blinked at it feebly, and then he pushed it feebly away.

“No, no,” he said vaguely. “I never have. I never have. We are rather old-fashioned here.”

“Not taking money,” I replied, “seems to me more like an uncommonly new fashion than an old one.”

“I never have,” said the old man, blinking and blowing his nose; “I’ve always given presents. I’m too old to stop.”

“Good heavens!” I said. “What can you mean? Why, you might be Father Christmas.”

“I am Father Christmas,” he said apologetically, and blew his nose again.

The lamps could not have been lighted yet in the street outside. At any rate, I could see nothing against the darkness but the shining shop-window. There were no sounds of steps or voices in the street; I might have strayed into some new and sunless world. But something had cut the chords of common sense, and I could not feel even surprise except sleepily. Something made me say, “You look ill, Father Christmas.”

“I am dying,” he said.

I did not speak, and it was he who spoke again.

“All the new people have left my shop. I cannot understand it. They seem to object to me on such curious and inconsistent sort of grounds, these scientific men, and these innovators. They say that I give people superstitions and make them too visionary; they say I give people sausages and make them too coarse. They say my heavenly parts are too heavenly; they say my earthly parts are too earthly; I don’t know what they want, I’m sure. How can heavenly things be too heavenly, or earthly things too earthly? How can one be too good, or too jolly? I don’t understand. But I understand one thing well enough. These modern people are living and I am dead.”

“You may be dead,” I replied. “You ought to know. But as for what they are doing, do not call it living.” Read the rest of The Shop of Ghosts

Truly, nothing we have done as a society for the last two years can be called living. Because a very large part of our society, maybe not the largest, but large enough to give power to men with bad ideas, we have all been forced by this tidal wave of people, like a crowd moving us helplessly in their direction, into not really living at all.

A pandemic is a very physical experience, a sharper and more precise experience from which to view society around us. A dying holiday, less so. But there is a connection between the two and while most of us might not be able to articulate just what that connection is – we still sense it. It is one of Chesterton’s tremendous trifles, something that is going to alter society in a very big way, and not necessarily a good way.

The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.

― G.K. Chesterton , Eugenics and Other Evils

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