Journal of the Plague Years 2021: Why Is He Telling Us about Victorian Theology?

For me, the last several days have been some of the worst of the pandemic. Events have left me so angry and afraid that I’m rocking in one place and swearing for an hour or so a day.

This evening I took a walk around my neighborhood, and spent the time trying to figure out how I want to behave. In less than a month, I’m going through a legal name and gender change, and possibly surgery. A couple of people who are very dear to me are rejecting that reality — ignoring, fighting it, ridiculing it, whatever. I’m in a rage about the assault on the Capitol; I’m worried because I keep slipping down the priority list for vaccination. The fears and stresses of all three things are tangled in my mind and I can’t tease them apart.

A part of me just wants to cut off anyone who resists my transition, to just say, “Train’s leaving. Get on or be left behind.”

It feels like it would be easier. Arguably it’s justified. Certainly my patience and stamina are limited. And there is a point — though I know I haven’t yet reached it with anyone — where you do have to stick to your truth in the face of other people’s fear or anger or grief.

The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope has a real gift for portraying the state of mind where outrage feeds on itself, becoming an ever-renewed source of cruel resolve. Several of his best-known and most sympathetic characters are prone to this sin: Most famously, Archbishop Grantly in Barchester Towers but also, the anti-hero of He Knew He Was Right, a monument to self-righteousness that ends in self-destruction. He also deftly portrays the opposite of this quality: Mr. Harding, the title character of The Warden, so doubts his own truth that he robs himself of his livelihood.

None of Trollope’s characters are saints, but I think that Barchester Towers does present us with something of a masculine, and dare I say Christian, ideal: Francis Arabin, a former follower of John Henry Newman who rejects the false rigors of Catholicism in favor of High Church Anglican faith. My hero Inglorion’s spiritual adviser, Father Nate Szyba, is loosely based on Dr. Arabin, and the spiritual crisis that turns him away from Catholicism and towards a very practical Christianity. As I walked, then, I thought about the modest ideal that Trollope presents, and how my hero used it to navigate a humanitarian disaster and spiritual crisis. I wrote that stuff for a reason. It’s an ideal that I try to embody.

Very sweet. A dusty old novel. But remind me — why is he telling us about Victorian theology?

Because I keep thinking there must be a way to turn away from anger without renouncing what I know to be true. Now, when the most basic reality is openly, publicly contested, I feel like that tension is splitting my ribcage open.

So I was walking along at sunset, trying to retrieve the truths that would help me through this. I thought about the insistence in Ashtanga yoga that there’s strength in enduring intense sensation with equanimity. Yoga teaches you to cure that which need not be endured, and endure that which cannot be cured. We’ve all been faced with a hell of a lot of both in the past year.

I was about to cross an alley. I heard a car, so I stopped. A little silver Honda pulled up to the corner and rolled straight into a left turn. The driver completed the turn, then stopped. The driver’s side window rolled down. A young woman called out in a conscience-stricken voice, “I’m sorry! I didn’t see you!”

I laughed and said, “I could tell that you couldn’t, so I waited. You’re good.”

We grinned at each other and waved goodbye, and I thought that it was sweet of her to stop and apologize. I should do that more often.

Reader, that’s what I want. The bit of bravery and generosity that made her offer an apology; my answering laugh and smile and wave.

Yoga also teaches us that grace in small things allows us to react with equanimity under real pressure. That’s been true this year, too. Just enduring the little indignities of masks and social distancing has been an unwelcome but meaningful discipline.

Over the next few months, I’m going to feel anger and fear and grief. I just have to figure out how to act out of compassion instead. Easily said; hard to do.

So what did I remember on my walk? That it’s worth trying. There’s strength in endurance. Spiritual effort is never wasted.

I have to tell my truth. I want to do it with kindness and compassion. Just that.

Love,

Alexander

Total Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 658,186

Current hospitalizations: 4,866

Deaths: 11,040

2 thoughts on “Journal of the Plague Years 2021: Why Is He Telling Us about Victorian Theology?

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