Churchill’s “K.B.O.” (Or something like that.)
There’s a skill that you and I as long-form writers have had to develop that will serve us (and everyone else) very well in this “time of cholera.” I’m not sure this virtue even has a name.
It’s a little like Winston Churchill’s K.B.O. “Keep Buggering On.”
Which itself is kinda like the famous sign from the tube-station air raid shelters during the Blitz, Keep Calm and Carry On.
I’m reminded as well of John Keats’ concept of “negative capability.” Have you heard of this? It’s from a letter from Keats to his brother in 1817:
“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … ‘
But it’s not exactly that either. It’s closer to Krishna’s admonishment to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita that we mortals
… have a right to our labors, but not to the fruits of our labors.
Lemme try to define this virtue straight out.
It’s the ability to keep on working with undiminished focus and effort even when we believe (or at least strongly suspect) that there will be no external reward or recognition at the finish.
In other words, the act of performing a function for its own sake entirely.
This is a soldier’s skill, and a mother’s. It’s a nurse’s skill. It’s a physician’s. In many ways it’s a teacher’s skill.
For sure it’s a writer’s virtue, and an artist’s of any kind, and an entrepreneur’s.
Whatever we call it (and I still don’t have a word), it’s a virtue we all need now.
We cannot predicate our actions today upon any outcome we can count on tomorrow. Nobody knows. Nobody can predict. Anybody who claims he can is either lying or self-deluded or both.
Yet we have to keep doing what we’re doing, and we have to keep doing it at a high level of commitment and fidelity.
What makes it so challenging is that human nature was not built to operate this way. We were made in times of peril to close ranks, to take up our posts shoulder to shoulder.
That won’t work today.
We have to, now, maintain solidarity with our brothers and sisters in a crazy, solitary, self-distancing way. We’re forced in our day-to-day lives to operate inside our own heads, to define our goals entirely by our own criteria (which may be very different from what we believed a few days ago), to determine our best practicable methods of seeking them, and then to self-motivate, self-validate, self-reinforce as we go forward … and keep doing it today and tomorrow and the day after, with no credible terminus in sight.
These are writer’s virtues, and artists’ and soldiers’ and mothers’ and entrepreneurs.
I don’t have a name for this, but we all need it and we need it now.