Coping with COVID-19: Taking Comfort and Resolve from the Words of Winston Churchill.

Photo of Winston Churchill

As I’ve observed in my two-minute “A Little Happier” episodes, in our lives, we never know the answer to the questions “What’s good luck or bad luck?” or “What’s a good use of our time; what’s preparation?

But, I’ve recently learned, writing a biography of Winston Churchill is excellent preparation for a world crisis. (In fact, Churchill wrote a five-volume history of World War I called The World Crisis.)

When I was writing my short biography Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I spent hours poring over Churchill’s greatest speeches and reading his books.

I practically memorized my favorite passages, and in these dark days, Churchill’s words are thundering through my head. They give me great comfort, and steel my resolve, and make me hopeful about the fate of the United States and the world.

There are many passages that I keep recalling.

Here’s my very favorite passage, which I find myself repeating in odd moments (which is inconvenient because I weep every time):

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. — Speech, 1940

When I’m thinking about my own actions and the measures I’m taking in my own life, and also about the actions and measures taken by others, I recall:

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor. — Eulogy for Neville Chamberlain, 1940

Churchill said these words in a very different context, but they apply to us today:

We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job. — Broadcast to the United States, 1941

When I ask myself, “What’s the appropriate attitude to adopt to these extraordinary events?” I recall the “strictly confidential” memo that Churchill sent to his colleagues in 1940:

In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues…would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimising the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve to continue the war . . . whatever may happen on the Continent, we cannot doubt our duty.

Often, a single line rings in my head:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

London can take it.

Never was so much owed by so many to so few.

Across the world, we’re all thinking echoing this thought about the courageous, indefatigable, and self-sacrificing actions of all the healthcare workers during this time. We owe them so much.

In these difficult times, it’s helpful to be amused as well as uplifted. I can’t resist mentioning some of my favorite funny lines from Churchill:

Of pompous Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery:  “Indomitable in retreat; invincible in advance; insufferable in victory.”

Of the “courage” of one of his fellow Members of Parliament: “It is that kind of courage which enables men to stand up unflinchingly and do a foolish thing, although they know it is popular.”

Churchill appeared to be asleep in his seat in the House of Commons. “Must you fall asleep when I am speaking?” asked a fellow MP.  “No,” said Churchill, “it is purely voluntary.”

Before the first night of Pygmalion, playwright George Bernard Shaw wired Churchill: “Am reserving two tickets for you for my premiere. Come and bring a friend—if you have one.” Churchill replied: “Impossible to be present for the first performance. Will attend the second—if there is one.”

I doubt everyone will find this remark as funny as I do, but I laugh out loud every time I think of it:

In 1935, when Clement Attlee, then Lord Privy Seal, took a misstep and fell to the floor of the House of Commons, Churchill admonished: “Get up, get up, Lord Privy Seal!  This is no time for levity.”

Ah, Churchill. What a subject! What a joy it was to write that book. And what a comfort his words, his certainty, and his determination are to me now, in ways that I could never have imagined.

For me, these recollections are an “area of refuge” for my mind. Do you have an area of refuge for your mind—a subject that comforts and cheers you?

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