Stiff Upper Lip!

We’ve all heard the old caricature of the Englishman bracing up for any misfortune or adversity that might come his way. Best foot forward, stiff upper lip, and think of England! It’s probably what a lot of those poor wretches in the trenches of 1916 heard from their commanding officers before they found out what machine gun bullets could do to their frail human bodies!

In spite of all the hypocrisy produced to defend wars (though who today would disapprove of the annihilation of all those terrorist head-chopping groups in Syria and elsewhere?) there is a lot to be said for being ready to face adversity through a little voluntary frugality. Stoicism was a philosophy of life in the ancient Roman world, and one of its protagonists was Lucius Annaeus Seneca in the first century. This is a part of our Lent: eating more simply, living with less heating and more frugally. I have been heating my chapel only for when anyone came to Mass, and I am quite content to say Mass in only 4 to 7°C as we are getting in this year’s mild winter.

Camping on the boat is a pleasure, but a pleasure that comes from frugality and the satisfaction of not needing comfort as a minimum. A certain amount of stoicism is good for building our character, especially if assumed voluntarily, and we are better prepared for when the chips are down. Perhaps something can be frugal and a pleasure…

I like this quote from Albert Camus (L’Eté, written in 1940):

Nous n’avons pas surmonté notre condition, et cependant nous la connaissons mieux. Nous savons que nous sommes dans la contradiction, mais que nous devons refuser la contradiction et faire ce qu’il faut pour la réduire. Notre tâche d’homme est de trouver les quelques formules qui apaiseront l’angoisse infinie des âmes libres. Nous avons à recoudre ce qui est déchiré, à rendre la justice imaginable dans un monde si évidemment injuste, le bonheur significatif pour des peuples empoisonnés par le malheur du siècle. Naturellement c’est une tâche surhumaine. Mais on appelle surhumaines les tâches que les hommes mettent longtemps à accomplir, voilà tout.

Sachons donc ce que nous voulons, restons fermes sur l’esprit, même si la force prend pour nous séduire le visage d’une idée ou du confort. La première chose est de ne pas désespérer. N’écoutons pas trop ceux qui crient à la fin du monde. Les civilisations ne meurent pas si aisément et même si ce monde devait crouler, ce serait après d’autres. Il est bien vrai que nous sommes dans une époque tragique. Mais trop de gens confondent le tragique et le désespoir.

Translation (not mine):

We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.

Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair.

This is perhaps a very healthy view of asceticism, as training for adversity, learning to gather resources to prevail over an enemy and fight for victory. I love the way Camus brushes aside the apocalyptic view which is such a temptation in our days. I am not the most optimistic person around, but I am not ready to “lie down and die” and possibly to curse God for my existence. There are ominous signs of World War III and the possibility that we might die by millions without fighting – but on the other hand we may face a conventional war in which each of us would have our chance however hard that might prove. Saudi Arabia and Turkey seem to be poised to invade Syria, now that Putin and Assad have nearly defeated Daesh. I live in hope, especially when I think of how we were spared from nuclear Armageddon in 1962, at the time of the Cuban missiles crisis. We have to live with some hope. I am rather hopeful that this is the end of Saudi Arabia as a barbaric kingdom, Turkey in the dock for crimes against humanity and the end of American hegemony in a continent that has never been theirs to pillage. The future might not be rosy, but we might be able to hope we will get by.

Lent can be the perfect occasion for this training of our spirit and soul, grinding our way through life, work, less than perfect relationships, health problems, a cold winter, being ready to make do with little rather than expect the most as a minimum. I am intensely irritated by people with high expectations, especially when they can’t afford the best. It is better to expect little in life, and then we are not disappointed by high expectations going unsatisfied. That notion was a part of my upbringing by parents who had lived through the war and made do with whatever they had. Be content with what you’ve got… my father told me as a child.

Dans la profondeur de l’hiver, j’ai finalement appris qu’il y avait en moi un soleil invincible“, Camus wrote in L’Etranger. I translate that as “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that there was an invincible sun within me”. That seems to remind me of the great letter by Oscar Wilde De Profundis as he languished in his Victorian prison, which I recommend should be read entirely. It might seem to be an expression of self pity, but I don’t think it is, for the simple reason that he was self-critical about that very temptation. I find that very same sentiment as Camus expressed so much later.

I have often been criticised for my pessimism when faced with the woes of the modern world and the threat of war (and the fact of war for the millions of Syrian refugees). I tend to give more credence to “alternative” news sources, because when I read the “mainstream” news, I am informed about things I knew months ago from “alternative” sources. I still live in comfort and almost complete safety for as long as I keep out of big cities. That might not last for long. How long would I survive as one of hordes of English and French refugees bound for Argentina and Chile – or Russia?

Whatever happens, perhaps we can make of Lent a time of lower expectations and greater humility. We have a lot of work to do on our sense of entitlement. These are surely the fundamental conditions of any life according to Christian ideals and a way that can lead us to true happiness.

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