COVID-19 PANDEMIC – WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?: REFLECTIONS BY PROFESSOR ANNA WIERZBICKA

Professor Anna Wierzbicka is a Professor in the Linguistics Program, School of Language Studies, Arts

I will speak from my own experience. What have I learned from the pandemic year?

One thing I have learned is to treasure every day more than ever before. Early in the pandemic I started writing, on my new home computer, a record I called my “Plague Journal”. I experienced every day as a precious gift, not to be taken for granted, and I felt a great desire to record each day’s experiences and to thinkthem through from that perspective. I did this from March to November 2020. Then the impulse exhausted itself. 

But another pandemic-related habit has stayed with me. I have a bright red notebook in which I write, first thing in the morning, two lines from Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (Nobel Laureate): 

Zaraz dzień. 

Jeszcze jeden. 

Zrób co możesz.

(A new day.

One more.

Do what you can.)

And then I think carefully about the coming day, I pray about it, and I jot down what I have to do and what I can do. I ask myself: If this is my last day, what can I do today? The image which speaks to me most (since thestart of the pandemic) is Van Gogh’s “Sower”, sowing seeds in a field at sunset. For me, these seeds are, first of all, emails which I can write on a given day, to various people, with warmth.

Looking back at the year of the pandemic, I see that I have retrieved many people from my past with whom I had not been in touch for a very long time. I reached out to them and they responded. 

As a believer (a Christian, a Catholic) I learned during this year how much God is, in the words of the Psalms, my rock, and how central the Mass is to my life. When churches closed in Canberra on March 23, 2020, the sense of loss was indescribable. By that time, I had become accustomed to a daily Mass, and an almost-daily “Holy Hour” in front of the Eucharist; and I couldn’t imagine my daily life without these riches. Unexpectedly, I found a magical solution to the problem: I discovered that if I stood just outside the church, in the privacy afforded by the surrounding rose bushes, with my face almost touching the stained-glass window, I could see the Mass being celebrated by the priest in the empty church. I did it every day, until the church was opened again. I felt blessed. 

Overall, I feel that over the year of the pandemic I got closer to God and closer to people, including many with whom I had previously lost contact. I also became more focussed in my work on the critical importance of the global communication, and on the role that the “NSM” approach and Minimal English can play in this regard.Not only in the sense of the global transmission of information, but also the global transmission of hope and sense of purpose. As I saw it,  this could be achieved through the power of simple words – words which can be found in all languages and which can resonate in all human hearts. Words like “live” and “die”. Words like “soul”. Words like “good” and “true”. 

In May 2020,  in response to an SOS from Italy from Maria Giulia Marini, I wrote “Seven Essential Messages for the Time of Coronavirus”. They can be found online https://nsm-approach.net/archives/9654 or http://journals.rudn.ru/linguistics/article/view/24093

These messages were translated into many languages, and they clearly struck a chord. As many respondents noted, simple and transparent words and phrases speak directly to the heart and can enhance our sense of human solidarity. St Augustine, at one time a self-absorbed golden youth, learned by the time he wrote his “Confessions” to think of other people as his “partners in mortality” (“consortes mortalitatis meae”). The same thought expressed in simple and universal words is, I feel, even more powerful:

We can think like this about all people:

          They will die, as I will die. 

          They can die today, as I can die today. 

          I want to do something good for them today if I can.

It is good if we think like this about people every day. 

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