Well, it’s the first day of the official lockdown and I must say I’m feeling a bit weird. Lots of emotions coming through. The main one being anxiety about how this is all going to play out. In South Africa we’re fortunate in two ways: we can learn from some of the missteps taken by other countries and I also feel very fortunate to have a President like Cyril Ramaphosa who’s doing a far better job than some of the leaders up North. We will definitely need great leadership to get through this challenging time.
I was reminded this morning of a story I’d read in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book David & Goliath. I’m a huge fan of Gladwell’s; all of his books and podcasts have challenged the way I think and taught me to be much more open-minded. David & Goliath is a compilation of fascinating true stories about underdogs who came out victorious against the odds.
The story which gives me great hope today deals with how the people of London were actually emboldened by their experiences of being bombed during the WWII Blitz. Before the Blitz, Gladwell writes:
Winston Churchill described London as ‘the greatest target in the world…He predicted that the city would be so helpless in the face of attack that between three and four million Londoners would flee to the countryside. In 1937, on the eve of the war, the British issued a report with the direst prediction of all: a sustained German bombing attack would leave six hundred thousand dead and 1.2 million wounded and create mass panic in the streets. People would refuse to go to work. Industrial production would grind to a halt. The army would be useless against the Germans because it would be preoccupied with keeping order among the millions of panicked civilians.
The country’s planners briefly considered building a massive network of underground bomb shelters across London, but they abandoned the plan out of a fear that if they did, the people who took refuge there would never come out. They set up several psychiatric hospitals just outside the city limits to handle what they expected would be a flood of psychological casualties. ‘There is every chance,’ the report stated, ‘that this could cost us the war.’ In the fall of 1940, the long-anticipated attack began.
The sustained bombing of London and other British cities between September 1940 and May 1941 resulted in 40,000 deaths, 46,000 serious injuries and the damage or destruction of around a million buildings. The Blitz was, Gladwell continues:
…everything the British government officials had feared—except that every one of their predictions about how Londoners would react turned out to be wrong.
The panic never came. The psychiatric hospitals built on the outskirts of London were switched over to military use because no one showed up. Many women and children were evacuated to the countryside as the bombing started. But people who needed to stay in the city by and large stayed. As the Blitz continued, the British authorities began to observe—to their astonishment—not just courage in the face of the bombing but something closer to indifference.
“In October 1940 I had occasion to drive through South-East London just after a series of attacks on that district,” one English psychiatrist wrote just after the war ended. “Every hundred yards or so, it seemed, there was a bomb crater or wreckage of what had once been a house or shop. The siren blew its warning and I looked to see what would happen. A nun seized the hand of a child she was escorting and hurried on. She and I seemed to be the only ones who had heard the warning. Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom and the bicyclists defied death and the traffic laws. No one, so far as I could see, even looked into the sky.”
I think you’ll agree this is hard to believe. The Blitz was war. The exploding bombs sent deadly shrapnel flying in every direction. The incendiaries left a different neighbourhood in flames every night. More than a million people lost their homes. Thousands crammed into makeshift shelters in subway stations every night. Outside, between the thunder of planes overhead, the thud of explosions, the rattle of anti-aircraft guns, and the endless wails of ambulances, fire engines, and warning sirens, the noise was unrelenting…
The typical explanation for the reaction of Londoners is the British “stiff upper lip”—the stoicism said to be inherent in the English character…But one of the things that soon became clear was that it wasn’t just the British who behaved this way. Civilians from other countries also turned out to be unexpectedly resilient in the face of bombing. Bombing, it became clear, didn’t have the effect that everyone had thought it would have. It wasn’t until the end of the war that the puzzle was solved by the Canadian psychiatrist J. T. MacCurdy, in a book called The Structure of Morale.
So, why were so many Londoners so unfazed by the Blitz? MacCurdy’s study divided Londoners into three groups: the first were considered direct hits, those that were killed; the second he called near misses, those that were perhaps traumatized by the bombing, maybe having their own houses destroyed or relatives killed. The third, Gladwell, writes were:
…the remote misses. These are the people who listen to the sirens, watch the enemy bombers overhead, and hear the thunder of the exploding bombs. But the bomb hits down the street or the next block over. And for them, the consequences of a bombing attack are exactly the opposite of the near-miss group. They survived, and the second or third time that happens, the emotion associated with the attack, MacCurdy wrote, ‘is a feeling of excitement with a flavour of invulnerability.’ A near miss leaves you traumatized. A remote miss makes you think you are invincible.
‘We are all of us not merely liable to fear,’ MacCurdy went on. ‘We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.’
It’s been said that Germany would’ve been better delaying the London Blitz, the logic being that the fear and apprehension would have cowed the British people into submission. Instead, the feeling of unity and courage which filled the survivors is seen as a key ingredient in the British pushing back with vigour and eventually defeating the Nazis.
This kind of story gives me hope that we will all be in the “remote misses” category and we will come out of this terrible time with the courage to keep going and build up again. Of course, the invisible enemy we’re facing is very different from a conventional human enemy. But we can only choose to be courageous in the face of this virus. To follow the advice of our President, be kind to others, and help the less fortunate however we can. We need to pull through this together.
I’d like to end off with a quote from my favourite book of all time, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E Frankl:
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”