Artillery Row

A positive thought

Theodore Dalrymple finds a reason to be cheerful

In these dark times we must find reasons to be cheerful. An antipodean friend of mine, a psychiatrist, has found one: adolescent suicide attempts, or gestures, have practically disappeared from the face of the hospital. The real threat of death, as adolescents must suppose it to be, has caused them to realise that, after all, they don’t really want to die. Or perhaps they fear the somewhat dusty reception they are likely to get in hospitals if they turn up with self-inflicted overdoses or injuries.

Not, of course, that their fears of death are in the slightest realistic. They are more likely to die in normal times in a road accident than of coronavirus now. But when it comes to danger, Bishop Berkeley was right after all: to be is to be perceived. No doubt the news that in France and Britain a small number of teenagers and one five year-old has died has spread to the antipodes, and this is more real (as well as more important) to the adolescents than the fact that over 90 per cent of deaths have been of over 70 year-olds. As Stalin might have put it, five deaths of young people are a tragedy; 60,000 deaths of old people are only to be expected.

Hospital attendances for suicide attempts, or gestures, or deliberate self-harm, especially overdoses with pills, number more than 100,000 per year in England and Wales, and if the antipodean experience is repeated here, there will be some slight saving for the NHS as a result.

My antipodean informant also said that about a third of his staff had gone off, not so much sick as auto-proclaimed ‘vulnerable.’ Interestingly, the rate at which they had excused themselves from work was inversely proportional to their real risk of danger from the disease, in so far as so infinitesimal a risk could be sensibly divided and then ranked.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that those who proclaimed themselves vulnerable wanted to be vulnerable, and not merely because it would give them an excuse to take a holiday from work. Vulnerability is the new heroism, and not claiming to be specially vulnerable is akin to insensitivity or insensibility. They had to be vulnerable in order to maintain their favourable self-image. Moreover, a person who does not believe himself to be vulnerable is deluding himself, he is lacking in realism; indeed, he is dangerous, inasmuch as he could easily spread the terrible virus of complacency.

The problem with panic is that, like many strong emotions with the exception of resentment, it cannot long endure, and is then likely to give way to cynicism and insouciance. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

What is necessary, of course, is to hold very different facts and images in one’s mind at the same time, and thus formulate a realistic attitude, which is difficult to do. No one can doubt that the virus is dangerous to many people, a sufficient number that our hospitals have experienced something they have not experienced in recent memory, and that many people have died a horrible death because of it; on the other hand – as such terrible things as epidemics go – this is very far from the worst in human history, and the overall mortality of whole populations has not increased as a result of it by very much, if at all.

At least, not so far – ay, there’s the rub: for in that fear of death what dreams may come, to adapt very slightly the words of Hamlet.

   Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

   And thus the native hue of resolution

   Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

   And enterprises of great pith and moment

   With this regard their currents turn awry,

   And lose the name of action.

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