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Fragments on Fragments #17: Being Human in a Pandemic

Fragments on Fragments #17: Being Human in a Pandemic


17 This is the peculiarity of the present day, in which every sea and land has been thrown open to travellers; and in which, therefore, one can no longer employ the evidence of poets and fabulists, as my predecessors have done on very many points, “offering,” as Heraclitus says, “tainted witnesses to disputed facts”


The opening sentence here comes from the ancient Greek historian Polybius, who himself quotes Heraclitus. Polybius’ main intention was to denounce other historians, but along the way he says something that really struck me in this time of restriction, lockdown, quarantine.


It’s all relative of course. Polybius was writing as the Roman Empire expanded across the Mediterranean, and as it did so travel became far more straightforward – at least within those boundaries. For those of us who have become used to holiday flights every year, or even more to those who have become intercontinental commuters, Polybius’ world might seem quite small. And the contrast was all the greater for us, when we were suddenly told to stay in our homes as much as possible, not to meet anyone, to only go shopping for food once a week …


There has been plenty of conversation about ‘the new normal’. I am writing these fragments in the form they are because I don’t think anyone can claim yet to know what that might look like. The chances are, though, that travel will be much more complicated, and sometimes restricted, than it has been over these last few decades in which increasing numbers of people have flowed to and fro across the whole world.


Polybius is warning against believing travellers’ (tall) tales, and in favour of getting the evidence direct. As we have seen, conspiracy theories and unfounded rumours spread pretty well in any case, and now we don’t actually need to travel in order to see with our own eyes what is happening elsewhere. And we may discover a virtue we didn’t even know existed. St Benedict, when he wrote the rule for his monks, included as essential a vow of stability. His rule is generally very merciful to human frailty, but he had no time at all for “so-called monks” who couldn’t stay in one place. 


After (many of us) getting so used to travel as a basic form of activity, what would it mean to learn to live in one place? As even the commute into city centres begins to diminish with increasing work from home, how can we recalibrate our lives to have some balance of work and rest? They’re tough questions to answer. But whatever the new normal may be, it would be well for us all to be ready for a life in which we aren’t so much on the move, and to look for the ways in which that can be a cause of joy and not frustration.


Fragments on Fragments are written by the Right Reverend Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon in the Church of England. He introduces the whole series here. Alongside the words is an image by Alison Clark of a broken sand dollar, gilded in reference to the Japanese practice of kintsugi: you can find more of her work here.


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