In the days ahead we face a choice as a nation – to behave out of fear, or out of courage, writes Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod. Which will it be? 

Here’s a joke for our times: What should we do if we know the aliens are coming?

Lower the interest rates.

Perhaps it’s not really a joke, for it’s not that funny. Because as important as it is that we see our economists and an economic response, that we see our scientists and a scientific response, what we most need in this time of crisis is to be reminded of the strength that lies within us. The alien is here in Covid-19 and we need to hear, from our poets and our prophets, our leaders and each other, a call to moral courage.

Our Prime Minister has given us clarity and calm and I am grateful for it. But the most we are being called to at present is kindness and, though an important virtue, it is not enough to roll away fear. Here’s an example from recent news: someone over 70 went to the shops even though she is part of the group most at risk of dying from the virus. A neighbour’s response was to go over and say that if the older woman went out again the neighbour was going to slash her tyres. What if instead the neighbour had gone and said something like this:

“We know the greatest sacrifice is being asked of you, but in these last years of your life you have the opportunity to lead New Zealand by your example. Your generation is of too great a value to be lost too early.”

Perhaps we don’t know how to talk like this anymore; maybe we have forgotten the sound of the words of courage; possibly we don’t trust them in our rational age. But I bet they would work and bring people together more than a threat of property destruction.

In discussing his new book The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson says to remember the horror and chaos of 9/11. The dust and the destruction. And then to imagine that happening for 57 days in a row. That was the blitz. To survive such a crisis was not just to stay physically unhurt but to move from terror and fear to courage and to hope.

People needed to find a way to face things in their mind and their spirit, not just in their bodies. And that didn’t occur because of the treasurer, or the business leaders, or even the brave and necessary emergency responders. It didn’t occur because people threatened and ridiculed each other. The English people showed courage and hope because they were inspired to it through words like this from Winston Churchill’s 1940 speech ‘Every Man to His Post’:

We must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than these brave old days of the past.

Every man and woman will therefore prepare himself to do his [or her] duty, whatever it may be, with special pride and care…This is a time for everyone to stand together, and hold firm, as they are doing…[so that the air force] know that they have behind them a people who will not flinch or weary of the struggle — hard and protracted though it will be; but that we shall rather draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival, and of a victory won not only for ourselves but for all; a victory won not only for our own time, but for the long and better days that are to come.

In the days ahead we face a choice as a nation: to hide behind our Facebook profile layers which call people to ‘stay home and save lives’ while we abuse those we hear are sick, spy and report those we perceive to be breaking the rules, horde our resources, and suggest a form of police state that in peacetime we would abhor. Or to call one another to self-sacrifice and love, to the power in our isolating action to bring forth better days to come, for the strength of mind to endure, and the hope we find in one another.

Which New Zealand shall it be?

Elizabeth (Libby) Kirkby-McLeod' work has been featured in takahē, Landfall, and the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. Her debut collection of poems, Family Instructions Upon Release, was published by The...

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