Service in a crisis
Exactly 160 years ago, on April 12, 1861, secessionist forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and started the deadliest war in US history, the Civil War, in which perhaps 700,000 soldiers died. The COVID-19 pandemic, while radically different in many ways, has claimed similar proportions in US lives – about 550,000 to date. In the midst of the terrible loss of life, such trials offer lessons about life. One such source of insight is the great American democracy poet Walt Whitman, who devoted more than three years of his life to volunteering on the beds of wounded and dying Civil War soldiers.
The literary critic Harold Bloom declared Whitman the “resourceful parent” of all Americans and described his “Leaves of Grass” as the best candidate for secular writing in the United States. What Whitman felt and hoped for the country passed beyond politics into the national imagination, and his own imagination was strongly shaped by what he experienced while caring for the sick and wounded. His moving accounts of the war and his personal response to it offer wise advice to COVID-19 weary Americans hopefully looking for relief from the ravages of the pandemic.
Whitman was born on Long Island in 1819 and lived much of his life in Brooklyn. At the age of eleven, he left school to support his family. He eventually found his way to journalism and started his own newspaper before deciding to become a poet. In 1855 he published “Leaves of Grass” himself, a collection of poems that he revised throughout his life. Six years later, with the outbreak of war, one of his brothers, George, joined the Union cause. When Whitman saw his brother’s name on a list of wounded soldiers in late 1862, he immediately traveled south to find him.
After a long search, Whitman was pleased to find that his brother had only suffered a superficial wound. But during the search Whitman came across landmarks that impressed him deeply – heaps of amputated limbs and the plaintive faces of wounded soldiers. Whitman got a part-time job as a paymaster in Washington, DC, and decided to stay in the city, which was home to numerous military hospitals, where he devoted most of his free time to tending to the wounded. He later wrote: “I consider these three years the greatest privilege and satisfaction and the deepest lesson of my life.”
What did Whitman do for the patients? He realized that mere medical diagnosis and therapy left vital needs unanswered, especially the need for camaraderie. Doctors would go from bed to bed quickly, overwhelmed by the number of wounded. In contrast, as a volunteer, Whitman could stay by the bedside, listening to his patients, reading stories to them, and in some cases holding their hands. He knew that many were teenagers, only 16 or 17 years old and away from home for the first time in their lives. Her need for medical care was at least offset by her longing for a friend.
Whitman’s was a Ministry of Presence. He would work in the paymaster’s office for a few hours and then go to bed and work there for many more. He wrote:
During those three years in the hospital, camp, or in the field, I made over six hundred visits or tours and counted, I estimate, all from eighty thousand to one hundred thousand wounded and sick as upholders of mind and body to some degree, in times of need. These visits ranged from an hour or two to day and night; because in love or critical cases, I generally watched the whole night. Sometimes I moved into my quarters in the hospital and slept or watched there for several nights in a row.
Whitman shared some of the most priceless but universal resources of all, his time, attention, and compassion with the sick, frightened, and often homesick young men of the Union and Confederate forces.
Only in the encounter with the precariousness of life can its full preciousness arise. The pandemic is one such reminder, and from it all can learn how to celebrate with gratitude each day.
Though Whitman had meager resources, he shared more. In addition to kind words, he brought all the little things he could get his hands on: “All kinds of food, blackberries, peaches, lemons and sugar, wines, all kinds of jams, cucumbers, brandy, milk, shirts and all underwear, Tobacco, tea and handkerchiefs. “Whitman was always the poet and also brought them paper, envelopes, and postage stamps for them to write to loved ones. For the many illiterate people and others who didn’t know what to say, Whitman would dictate or even write on their behalf.
For a Nelson Jabo, Whitman wrote the following letter to his wife:
You must excuse me for never writing to you. I wasn’t very healthy and didn’t feel like writing – but now I’m much better – my complaint is a lung disease. I am decommissioned but not good enough right now to get home. Hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this and let me know how you all are, how things are going – let me know how about mom. I am writing this with the help of a friend who is now sitting by my side and I hope it will be God’s will for us to meet again. I send you all of my love.
Whitman also shared his experience with a wider audience through newspaper reports, poetry, and essays, helping the American public, far from the struggle, to know the extent of the sacrifices made on their behalf. He wrote of a young man:
I don’t know his previous life, but I have a feeling that it must have been good. In any case, I can say what I have seen of him here under the most difficult circumstances with a painful wound and among strangers, that he behaved so brave, calmly and so sweetly and lovingly that it could not be beaten. And now, like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has given up his young life in their service right from the start.
In the midst of the current pandemic, there are some features of Whitman’s work that should be highlighted. One of these is the fact that he served without any formal responsibility or compensation. Nobody expected that he would devote years of his life to the service of complete strangers. There was no job description to adapt to because it was quite simply not his job. Yet he knew it was his calling – that is, he did it because he felt called to it. What he saw first when looking for his brother and later every day in the military hospitals – the terrible plight of the wounded – moved his heart to action.
Something similar can happen today in the midst of the pandemic. While the fear of contagion makes it unwise or even inadmissible to look after the victims of the pandemic in their beds – especially the sick among them – the opportunity to serve is not ruled out. The collateral damage from COVID-19 extends well beyond those infected with the virus, and these penumbra provide ample space to answer such a call. For example, the decline in human connectedness caused by social distancing, isolation, and quarantine represents a premium for efforts to reduce loneliness and let people know that someone is thinking about them.
In the face of the fragility of human life, Whitman did not turn his back but looked him straight in the eye. He found that he could see death and life more clearly at the bedside of the sick and dying than anywhere else, and it taught him something about what it means to really live, to enjoy time with another person. Mortality does not seem to be a fault, but a characteristic of life, and only in encountering the precariousness of life can its full priceless arise. The pandemic is one such reminder, and from it all can learn how to celebrate with gratitude each day.
Whitman not only saw but introduced himself. He envisioned a mother in Ohio who received the letter with the news of the death of her soldier son, written in someone else’s hand. In “Come up from the fields, father” he wrote:
Through the jam of a door [she] leans.
But the mother must be better
She with thin form is currently drying in black,
Their meals were untouched during the day, then at night
sleep restlessly, wake up often,
Awake in midnight, crying, longing with a deep longing,
O that she withdraws unnoticed,
Escaping silence from life and withdrawing,
To follow, to seek, to be with their love
The biological, economic and educational damage of the pandemic was great. But also the tribute that he paid to the heads, hearts and spirits of our fellow citizens, neighbors and people. In such circumstances, we need to remember not only the damage we have seen, but the damage we have not seen, the wounds that cut deeper than flesh. It is not only Whitman’s powers of perception and description that provide opportunities for learning and imitation, but also his moral imagination that gives rise to the possibility of salvation through service, even in times of crisis.