Wartime Feelings Without the War
I cut my own hair two weeks ago. God knows my hairdresser has nothing to fear from my DIY experiment. I was just sick of the weight and unruliness of it and hacked a few inches off the bottom with my crafting scissors. Desperate times, I guess.
There’s a scene in The English Patient where Juliet Binoche, playing a nurse on the front lines of World War II Europe, cuts her own hair. She’s decided to stay in Italy with the titular burn victim who won’t survive being moved again. As she bunkers down in an abandoned villa, she folds up her uniform in favor of a simple, loose fitting dress and she chops off her long brown hair. It’s a short scene that does little to actually move the plot along, yet I think of this (newly relevant) bit of film every time I see myself in the mirror.
And not because I look like Juliet Binoche or understand what it’s like to be a wartime nurse. I can’t imagine either of those things. But in my humble way, I can feel the relief a woman like her character must have felt, to no longer be constrained by buttons and helmets and able to wear sneakers instead of boots. I suddenly understand the impulse to lighten this bit of weight, to let go of the effort of vanity, to take matters into my own surprising hands.
I’m caught off guard by this. I’m not a wartime nurse and have no frame of reference for this empathy. I could argue for my current wardrobe, which consists of only the most comfortable items. Or relish the relaxed schedule that it’s a mixed blessing to have. But there is something else, deeper and more troubling, that does in fact have to do with war.
We aren’t at war now, despite boilerplate to the contrary. I mistrust any politician who tosses off manipulative language to rally a crowd or make himself a hero. We haven’t been trained for this battle, another in a line of abstract conflicts: the war on drugs, the war on terror, and now the war on COVID. I’m exhausted by this language that surrounds yet another unseen enemy, a lot of politics, and too much loss of life. There was no war on polio or bubonic plague so why fancy ourselves warriors now?
We aren’t at war. Still, even those of us who aren’t in health care or essential services are likely experiencing many of the symptoms and consequences of one. For instance, we’re getting to know the ways that trauma and moral injury aren’t reserved for soldiers. We’re seeing the ways that our leadership — local, national, or corporate — often doesn’t have our best interests at heart and can force us to make impossible choices. We have mixed feelings when it comes to patriotism and what constitutes a reasonable sacrifice. We’re understanding the importance of supply chains, protective equipment, strategy, and diligence. We’re seeing that there are no small contributions and few unnecessary jobs. We are all potential casualties, if not of the illness itself then certainly of the collateral economic, spiritual, and social damage it can cause.
We aren’t in a time of war yet we’re suddenly behaving like our Depression-era parents and grandparents. We’re baking bread and growing vegetables. We’re learning to sew. We’re running errands for the neighbors and encouraging and comforting our students. We’re taking evening constitutional walks in sensible shoes. We’re bartering goods, a little butter and soup for toilet paper and homemade sanitizer. We ask about each other’s elders, family on the “front lines,” sons and daughters at a distance.
We feel shaken and changed. But we aren’t at war.
Perhaps we can reframe the battlefield language — at least for those of us who aren’t actually faced with blood and crisis every day — to something more appropriately civilian. Maybe we can say instead that we’re in a time of care.
In this time of care, we can reprioritize. We can put together the bags for goodwill once donations are accepted again, do a regular check on the extended family, organize the house and our affairs. We can use this time to get to know the neighbors as we sit on porches and stoops. We can rest. We can offer condolences with something other than Hallmark cards and casseroles.
Our time of care is welcoming us to a deliberate sense of economy. Streamlined, pared down, slower, less wasteful. We can cut our own hair not for beauty but for lightness and efficiency, for the small release of emotional weight by hands that are proving more useful than we thought.
In this time of care, we show kindness and solidarity with total strangers by wearing masks in public. The mask has become an emblem of this pandemic, to some a symbol of fear, authoritarianism, and hyper-vigilance. But it’s also visible prayer, a team pinny, a way of acknowledging the vulnerability of people we may never know personally. We help the effort and show which side we’re on by keeping our faces covered.
The lack of certainty or cohesiveness in all of this makes many of us brittle, traumatized, conspiratorial. We often misbehave in decidedly civilian ways. We might wonder what’s really happening “over there,” sometimes spinning out in fear and anger, sometimes paralyzed, sometimes numb. We will make poor choices and hurt each other. Since we are not at war but in a time of care, maybe we’ll choose to extend some forgiveness, wave white flags, and watch the borders change.
In this time, we could see the ways that we are privileged and fortunate and the ways that others are not, and commit to changing that. Some of us will be afraid to see it and take it in, afraid of what that change will mean for us. Of course, this has always been true, but maybe it’ll be more conspicuous and less tolerable now that everything has shifted, now that we’re in a time of care.
We can grieve together, pray together, create something new together, even across great distances. We might feel broken open for no reason or a hundred reasons, and let the breaking be a way into our humanity.
In this time of care, we might fold up our uniforms in favor of deeper and more practical comforts, and offer something useful and kind to those who cannot be moved. In this, as in the movie, maybe eventually we’ll find some healing and peace.