The importance of relativizing

I must confess that the current Corona crisis is having a great impact on me. And, that I’m gradually getting fed up with the many restrictions that are still in place in the Netherlands, especially since it looks like we won’t be getting rid of them for some time yet. If there will be any easing of the measures in the coming weeks, it will be very gradually. And so, for some time to come, daily conversations, the news and TV talk shows will continue to be dominated by Corona issues.

By now it is clear that the pandemic will not only cause many deaths and ICU hospitalizations, and bring significant physical discomfort to large numbers of people, but that it will also have serious social and mental consequences. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the rioters of a few weeks ago, but I do understand that there is a broad sense of deep unease. It is inevitable when you can’t just go visit your parents, your children and grandchildren and your friends. For many working from home is not easy. Cafes and restaurants are closed. Shopping is only possible to a very limited extent. Secondary schools still remain closed. The loss of your job or the demise of your business-it’s all very intense. But, when I sometimes feel a little despondent and complain that life right now is in many ways incredibly boring, I try to pull myself together, realizing that my personal situation is not nearly as difficult as that of millions of my fellow countrymen.

It is important to be able to put things in perspective. What we go through may be unpleasant, but it doesn’t compare to what many others have to endure. We also learn this lesson, that putting things in perspective is important, when we look at history. I am currently reading David van Reybrouck’s masterful book on the history of Indonesia’s struggle for independence, and how the Netherlands dealt with this. Van Reybrouck is a Belgian investigative journalist who previously wrote a book, as stunning as it is sad, about the Belgian colonization of the Congo and the chaotic end thereof. His new book on the Dutch role in what was once the Dutch East Indies paints a disconcerting picture (Revolusi: Indonesia and the Emergence of the Modern World). By now I had become reasonably well-informed about the so-called “police campaigns” after the end of the Second World War, when the Netherlands tried to continue its colonial rule. That in the process many atrocities were committed had for a long time not dawned on the majority of the Dutch population, but gradually the realization has grown that something had gone very radically wrong. But especially the part of the book about the Japanese occupation during the Second World War made a big impression on me. Not only were tens of thousands of Dutch citizens (and Germans who worked or happened to be in Indonesia) interned, and did they terribly suffer in the hell of the Japanese prison camps, but also at least four million of the local population perished because of the harsh conditions and an increasing lack of food. Reading about this, one realizes that a Corona pandemic is very nasty, but that in the past societies have sometimes gone through a period that was infinitely worse than what we are currently experiencing. Yes, being able to put things in perspective and to relativize is very important!

What kept the people in Indonesia going amidst their crisis? The hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel. The enemy would be defeated. The evangelical writer Max Lucado, also popular in the Netherlands, wrote about the American admiral James Stockdale in his book Fearless. He was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and was held in deplorable conditions in a camp for prisoners of war during eight long years. When he was finally freed, he was asked how he had managed to endure all that time. This was his answer, “I never lost my faith in the end of the story. I remained convinced that one day I would be released and that ultimately this experience would be a defining episode in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not have wanted to miss.” I don’t know if, when the pandemic is over, I will be able to look back on my Corona “captivity” in the same way. But this admiral’s attitude is very valuable. Continuing to believe that the story will eventually end well keeps us going—even as our lives are scarred by Covid-19.