A Portent for These Times — Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of a Plague Year”…
Nothing is new — we know this. But there is also a synchronicity that appears with unforeseen events and it can be astonishing. Further below is an excerpt from a book I remember reading as literature in grad school. It did not seem actually real to me, then, but of course it seems quite real and contemporary to us, to a lot of our behavior and experience, now. Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame published this book in 1722 and he titled it “Journal of the Plague Year” about the events of the bubonic plague of 1665 in London. I have given the opening pages, and in case you want to read more of it, I have added the link to the free HTML version available on Gutenberg.
I went looking for this book, only vaguely remembering it, when the lockdowns increased this week. I wanted to know what had happened to others across time, and most of all, how they had dealt with fear when faced with the unknown of their own mortality.
What Does It Mean to Feel Afraid?
What happens to us when fear seems to dominate our thoughts? It doesn’t matter what is causing the fear. If we feel it, it is real.
A whole physiological series of chemical reactions happens in our cells when something has triggered fear. These are defensive, natural, born out of our ancient past when survival was at risk all the time. Fear way back then served as a safety valve, a warning, a way to let us know we had to take some kind of action instantly. There was no thinking on this, just physical response — because we had to get out of the way of the mammoths and the sabre-toothed tigers that thrived in the terrain of the Ice Age we shared with them. This reaction is recorded in our genetic memory, activated in the amygdala, the earliest and most primitive part of our brain. Our choice had to be either fight, or flee and hide from the danger. No other courses of action were open to us.
This planet has never been free of triggers that sweep us into the fight or flight path. Man-made as well as natural traumas and cataclysmic events have stopped all civilizations in their tracks. Yet, without exception, how these were handled determined our survival in a new way — not the way of fear, but the way OUT OF fear.
This is an absolute truth — so long as we feel something is real, for good or ill, it controls our thoughts and emotions. Our beliefs rule us. However, we can always change our beliefs if they are detrimental to our well-being.
Only by facing into the fear, do we begin to consider a way to be free of it.
The courage this takes is not always or even often physical. In modern times, it is more often a psychological courage we require to defy the wave of fear gripping our world, whenever that occurs. Otherwise, our fear can accelerate and exist even — or especially! — when we are not directly threatened, when nothing has happened to us. Then we contribute to the wave of fear, helping it escalate.
And when we succumb to psychological fear, we cease to see others as important as ourselves. This is far more dangerous. Always, all of us, equally matter. Only fear distorts this awareness, and can close it down.
What is also a truth is the realization that all things do pass. What frightens us eventually stops. The world needs our hope, not our despair, to rally and reshape itself.
We don’t have to resort to escape or to violence. At the heart level, we don’t have to experience separation and anxiety as a permanent state of being.
One thing is absolute — we are not alone in any of this. No matter what media and governments tell us. We are not alone. We are meant to live knowing this is so.
At the end of his account of the plague that beset London, Defoe writes this:
It was a common thing to meet people in the street that were strangers, and that we knew nothing at all of, expressing their surprise. Going one day through Aldgate, and a pretty many people being passing and repassing, there comes a man out of the end of the Minories, and looking a little up the street and down, he throws his hands abroad, ‘Lord, what an alteration is here! Why, last week I came along here, and hardly anybody was to be seen.’ Another man — I heard him — adds to his words, ‘’Tis all wonderful; ’tis all a dream.’ ‘Blessed be God,’ says a third man, and and let us give thanks to Him, for ’tis all His own doing, human help and human skill was at an end.’ These were all strangers to one another. But such salutations as these were frequent in the street every day.
EXCERPT — Daniel Defoe’s Account of the Plague Year
Defoe was only five in 1665 and the narrative is what he created in 1722 from the journals of his uncle who lived through it.
“ It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.
We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true; till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane. The family they were in endeavoured to conceal it as much as possible, but as it had gotten some vent in the discourse of the neighbourhood, the Secretaries of State got knowledge of it; and concerning themselves to inquire about it, in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague. Whereupon it was given in to the parish clerk, and he also returned them to the Hall; and it was printed in the weekly bill of mortality in the usual manner, thus —
Plague, 2. Parishes infected, 1.
The people showed a great concern at this, and began to be alarmed all over the town, and the more, because in the last week in December 1664 another man died in the same house, and of the same distemper. And then we were easy again for about six weeks, when none having died with any marks of infection, it was said the distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another house, but in the same parish and in the same manner.
This turned the people’s eyes pretty much towards that end of the town, and the weekly bills showing an increase of burials in St Giles’s parish more than usual, it began to be suspected that the plague was among the people at that end of the town, and that many had died of it, though they had taken care to keep it as much from the knowledge of the public as possible. This possessed the heads of the people very much, and few cared to go through Drury Lane, or the other streets suspected, unless they had extraordinary business that obliged them to it
This increase of the bills stood thus: the usual number of burials in a week, in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Andrew’s, Holborn, were from twelve to seventeen or nineteen each, few more or less; but from the time that the plague first began in St Giles’s parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number considerably. For example: …
To read the rest, if inclined, just go to this link: