I am sure I am not the only person to be re-reading Samuel Pepy’s diary, and most particularly the parts concerned with his experiences of the Great Plague.
Some of it feels utterly alien. Some of it feels eerily prescient. While the death toll is far above anything we can envisage, the images of a depopulated London stumbling to a halt feel all too familiar. Pepy’s writes of ‘nobody but poor wretches in the streets’, ‘no boats upon the River’, and records the mass closing of theatres and sporting events.
All sad. All very relatable.
So it is something of a surprise to learn Pepy’s himself wasn’t unhappy during the Plague. In fact quite the opposite. While he does show compassion for victims, this alongside a macabre obsession with the mechanics of it all.
Eventually, Pepy’s writes ‘I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time’.
Was Pepy’s some sort of psychopath? Is it possible to be happy in a very unhappy time? Is it even allowed?
Of course he wasn’t. Yes. Of course it is.
Pepy’s is being honest and human. Being human – as all of us already know – means experiencing and reconciling contradictory emotions.
It is healthy to acknowledge and pay respectful attention to suffering without wearing sackcloth and gnashing teeth. Indeed, living our lives in a state of vicarious sadness leads to despondency and makes it harder for us to assist those who need help during this difficult time. It is perfectly possible to enjoy more time with your family, while writing letters to those who are isolated and lonely.
It is important we remember this. While – to my taste at least – it is not the right time for grandiose, viciously gleeful predictions about how this crisis will reconfigure society for the better, taking time to recognise ways in which small changes to our own lives might improve them can be a helpful way to stay positive and keep going.
For me the changes to my work pattern mean I will be at home more. I’ll have longer with my wife and two daughters. As of today all my family is in good health. I’ll get to run in open fields and won’t need to wear a tie every day. It is spring and somehow the sky seems bluer than I remember it being at this time of year.
These are small things but I’m going to take time to appreciate them and I won’t feel guilty.