By Christian Bergmann
I work at a café. It’s a cosy coffee shop located in Kew East, with a network of customers from many different walks of life. The beautiful thing is that this little coffee shop is more than just a goods and services provider: it’s a place of connection. Strange as I think it is, it’s a place of community, where friendships are born and people feel they are wanted. This little community has taught me a lot in recent days about what will carry us through this crisis. It has also given me a lot of hope.
Everybody knows the economic effect of this shutdown will be negative. However, one thing I remain hopeful of is that the social fruit of this crisis will be overwhelmingly positive. Let me tell you what I mean.
Throughout this time, we are being deprived of the smallest things that stitch the fabric of our society together: handshakes, hugs, close contact with those we cherish most, the freedom to go places because, well, we can. We feel partitioned, isolated, claustrophobic. Basic freedoms that we once took for granted have been temporarily suspended. Yet, after speaking with person after person coming through my café, there is one golden thread of hope that runs through the negativity, anxiety and distress: this is going to make our communities stronger if we let it. We are going to realise that the many small things that constitute our lives are not trivial but essential.
Another thing: in this crisis, people are being more intentional. We are finally coming to face the reality that what we do does in fact have an effect on others. We are not just individuals. Where we go, what we do, who we do it with – it matters. What is this but a rediscovery of a basic truth that we are social creatures designed for communion, not isolation. If we have a more individualistic bent, then quarantine should suit us perfectly. But it doesn’t, because even the strictest individualist wants his individualism to be known amongst the community.
Likewise, I’ve observed that people are being more intentional with their money. They are choosing to invest it in businesses they love, to help those they know are struggling. Again, people cannot spend money as freely as they used to, but where they do spend, they’re putting their money into the places they want to see stick around. In other words, they’re investing in society. It’s an exhilarating thing to see. In the face of crisis, the question of generosity becomes more important than ever, because finally generosity costs us something.
These things, they’re small. But it reminded me of one my favourite passages from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (if you’ll indulge me). During the Council of Elrond, after Gandalf urges the gathered people to act on destroying the One Ring instead of foolishly trying to control it, Elrond says this:
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
Rich in Tolkien’s literature is attention to the small things. It is a great host of small things that make up our lives, our days, our hours. It is small people who can have the most profound and lasting impact on the course of things.
Naturally, recalling this, I thought of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. In her spiritual autobiography, she talks about how Mother Marie of her convent taught her a path to becoming holy: “fidelity in little things”. The path to sainthood, she said, was a path towards greater simplicity. After all, it was Jesus himself who said he had come to reveal truths which had been hidden from the foundation of the world to “the little ones”, not to the wise.
In this time of pandemic, in which we face a crisis that is truly global, truly situated on the world stage, of proportions and scales we have not yet come to comprehend, we should not forget to remain faithful to “the little things” and allow God to make our lives simpler. In simplicity, we can see God clearly. In simplicity, we can see ourselves clearly. As we do this, our communities and our society will become more robust, more homely than they were before.