On a recent trip to the grocery store, I was shocked by the number of people who disregarded the social distancing protocol which are supposed to keep us safe and slow the spread of the coronavirus. While it was no where near a majority (the majority was wearing masks, keeping their distance, etc), but it was a significant enough portion of the shoppers were not so as to be more than noticeable. People were crowding each other in the aisles, touching the produce with ungloved hands, and smiling at each other with unmasked faces. In a parking lot with about 50 spaces, the 15 or so cars in the lot were largely huddled in the 20 spots closest to the entrance.
I left the store angry, ranting about people’s lack of care for other people. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about advice, how we give it, and how we can make it more likely that people will follow it.
This led me to Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Advice To A Prophet.” I had been thinking about the poem anyway, as I had been planning on using it as an example in a blog post about figurative language to follow up on the one I posted a few weeks ago, but re-reading the poem, I was drawn not only to the technical way that he selects his figures, which I still intend to write about in the future, but also to the way he advises the prophet to give—and not give—his advice.
[Note: The poem is still under copyright, so I have linked to it, but not copied and pasted the whole thing. If you are not familiar with the poem, please click through to the link, which I have set up to open in a separate tab so that you can switch back and forth easily.]
In the second and third verse of the poem, the speaker warns the prophet not to speak of danger to the people themselves. “Spare us all the words of weapons” he says, “the long numbers that rocket the mind” for we are “unable to fear what is too strange.” People are unable to imagine the “death of the race,” unable to imagine a world without themselves. “How should we dream of a world without us?”
Tell us, instead, Wilbur writes of nature’s destruction: of the “world’s own change” of how “the white tailed deer will slip/into perfect shade” how “bronze annals of the oak tree close.” We can understand the loss of that which we see around us, that which, like “the rose of our love” we use to define ourselves and our feelings, that which we use to define “all we mean or wish to mean.” While we cannot conceive of our own demise, perhaps, through looking at things that we will lose, and through imagining our lives without them, we will be able to understand the gravity of the situation. Perhaps, even if we cannot comprehend the danger to ourselves, we could understand enough of it through the threat to that which we care about and which gives our lives meaning.
For a long time, I thought this was excellent advice. Though the potential apocalypse which inspired Wilbur to write this poem is not exactly the same, I used to teach this poem on Earth Day every year. The environmental “prophets” among my students often left the class with a different idea of how to persuade others to join their cause.
Now, however, I’m not so sure. While Wilbur’s initial point seems valid: It is difficult for people to imagine a world in which they don’t exist, the response to the expert’s advice about social distancing and isolation does not seem to fully bear out the course of action suggested by his advice. As I write this, the TV is on in the background. About half of the commercials are public service announcements encouraging people to distance, to wear masks, etc., yet as mentioned above, too great a segment of the population is not following the doctors’ advice. These commercials, at least in part follow Wilbur’s advice: They remind people that the guidelines are not only about protecting themselves (which Wilbur’s speaker points out is a difficult argument to make), but also about protecting the weak, the sick, and, especially, the old. While it may be difficult to imagine a world where you contract a potentially fatal disease, it is easier to imagine one where your grandparents, friends, and neighbors might become infected.
Perhaps people will only come around when those they know personally contract the virus. Perhaps only then, will it become real to them, but, for now, even the Wilbur-esque argument seem to fall short.
Still, I do see some evidence of what the poem suggests. People seem to be really affected by certain images associated with the pandemic. The shortage of food and toilet paper seems to be an enduring symbol of this time, and the fact that a tiger in the Bronx Zoo contracted coronavirus seems to affect some people more than the deaths of human strangers. While t first that might seem illogical, it fits with Wilbur’s observation of human behavior.
Is it possible to turn these images of empty shelves and sick animals into metaphors that will call people to action? Personally, I am at a loss. We need a Wilbur for this hour. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.
Stay safe and healthy, and please follow the recommended social distancing guidelines.