How to make Covid 19 all about you

Chucking out old newspapers I found this:

“Some eating-disorder sufferers – who are already often grappling with feelings of guilt about buying food – have reported that reading stories of panic buying have triggered worries that they must not buy food at all, lest they be taking food away from people who need it more.” [1]

See what a resourceful opportunist anorexia is! You’d think the planetary scale of this pandemic would put our silly troubles in perspective. But, no, Old Scratch can find, in any situation, a chance to promote himself. This quotation contains so many of his familiar tropes: an unflattering comparison to other people; a belief that we are less deserving than they are and thus should consume less and have less of an impact on the world; hence guilt; anxiety caused by perceiving a vast, uncontrollable threat, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, but treated with the same alarm; the attempt to calm that alarm by occupying ourselves with a project that we can control: self-denial; the need for self-sacrifice to mitigate our guilt; an awareness of how small and useless such a contribution would be and thus that it’s more about personal integrity than about saving others; the consequent worry that our desire to sacrifice is actually a form of selfishness; making it all about us. This leads, finally, to a bitter and defeated resignation: “I know I’m a selfish shit. I hate that about myself, too, but that is who I am.”

This would be exactly my reaction if I was still ill/ iller, especially if I was only catering for myself. But I haven’t had these thought at all throughout the lockdown, and for entirely practical reasons: I have to live with my family. It’s my job to feed them and, since my return, to eat with them. After my disgrace, they are highly sensitive to any signs that I am under-eating. They watch me.

In other words, I am locked into a domesticity that won’t allow me to stray. The family, and Abi, have extorted promises from me. They tell me that I show my love for them, and my commitment to my community, by keeping eating. I contribute to the NHS by no longer being a financial burden on them. I sacrifice by not sacrificing.

Much as I’d like to.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that Abraham’s great act of faith is that he does not sacrifice himself in the place of the son he loves. Instead of committing suicide to save Isaac, and thus being praised and honoured, he is willing to carry out God’s order to sacrifice the boy, and then return to face the horror and condemnation of his community, especially Sarah’s. He is willing to live with it, not just as a broken old man, reviled and lonely, tormented by ghastly memories, wallowing in it, but as a celebrant of the God-given life, who still praises his lord in gratitude,

if God so wishes it:

“If Abraham had doubted, – then he would have done something else, something great and glorious; … He would have thrust the knife into his own breast. He would have been admired in the world and his name never forgotten; but it is one thing to be admired, another to be a guiding star that saves the anguished.”[2]

At least, that’s what I think he’s saying. I don’t understand Kierkegaard very well, but he appears to be suggesting that there is more honour in living humbly, suffering life’s compromising and belittling indignities, embracing living, than in haughtily renouncing it for a life of self-important, virtuous abstinence, than in suicide, that utter renouncement, so declarative and absolute, so irreversible and uncompromising as to be, simultaneously,  principled and a little cowardly; virtuous and selfish[3].


[1] Bee Wilson What stockpiling during the coronavirus crisis reveals about Britain, The Guardian 3rd April  2020

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, 2005, Fear and Trembling, London: Penguin, p21

[3] Although this summary seems unfairly prosaic and narrow. Kierkegaard has far more scope, more cosmic profundity.

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