It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period...
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
I thought we were living in somewhat unusual times, until today. Then I stood in a Black Friday pre-Christmas sale lineup, and I realized people are quite the same as they have always been. You just have to watch them to know. Specifically, It was a COVID lineup, that will one day be considered quite unusual, when the pandemic is done with and things go back to normal. These kind of lineups are familiar to us by now. They are characterized by dotted markers spray painted onto the pavement outside the store, that pace off six foot distances to keep us apart. The lineup also had another telltale sign. Everyone was wearing a face mask. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie.
But people get used to it, it seems. A father and son duo were killing time in front of me, waiting for the lineup to move forward. Something quite comical unfolded. The two fell into something very familiar to the annals of fathers and sons. As they waited, he showed his son some fight moves. The father demonstrated three good takedowns, where your opponent moves in to attack you, and you disable him in close quarters. It was very cordial. The son, about ten years old, took turns doing the moves on his dad, who fell back in mock defeat. He fist bumped his son. It looked like the kind of move he might pull off after a gentlemanly game of squash with a business partner. It made me think of also being ten years old, and in my friend John Muloney’s basement. His dad had just bought boxing gloves and was teaching him the ropes. He said any man ought to know how to honourably defend himself. Going through a bit of training would sap your fear of being hit in real life. You would quickly learn how to take a pounding and give back as good as you got. And so we donned gloves, and duked it out. We beat each other up congenially. It’s the age old lingua franca of the male species, being at the forefront of a conflict and preparing yourself for battle. It’s buried not so deep within the psyche of Mankind. Men guard the perimeter. They must fend off threats, and not be afraid. They must go forth and do battle with the world.
And so the story unfolded yet again. I looked at the lineup and started to feel a little better about life. I knew that things can be unpredictable, yet every situation brings with it some familiarity because human beings are human beings. We are creatures of habit, drawing from a deep anthropological well of shared memory. Such truisms have been pointed out by the likes of Joseph Campbell, who went all around the world and collected the myths and legends of cultures. He found out there were great similarities in the human story, no matter where you were born, or when. The themes were pretty much universal. There were codes of honour that drove peoples’ motivations. There was the age old theme of family, of loss and return. The Hero’s Journey. The one who leaves home, fights dragons and monsters, and brings back to his tribe some of the treasures he has captured on the way. It’s the odyssey that happens to every man. It’s what the father was doing in the lineup with his son. He was giving him the goods, straight up.
So have no fear. Yes we are living in unprecedented and unusual times. It might be the one commonality that trails human beings throughout history, the predictability of the unpredictable, the things you must do battle with, to conquer and to afterwards bring home the goods. To stand up when it is time and take your place in the line stretching from the battlefields of Troy, to the Somme and beyond.
The line bumped forward. This battle is a little different than what we are used to it is true, but not so much. The father and son duo moved forward. They prepared to go into the store. The father adjusted his own face mask. Then he tweaked his son’s. He pulled some hand sanitizer from his leather satchell and applied some on their hands. They both knew what to do.
“You ready buddy?” the father asked. He ruffled his son’s hair and then clamped his arm around him as they went into the store. “It’s our turn. We’re going in. All set? Let’s do this.” And then they disappeared into the store, a generation apart, and not so different, doing battle with the world, and taking the fight to the enemy.