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Shaping the Future by Remembering the Past: Challenges for a New Year

The arrival of a new year, especially after a particularly difficult one, traditionally serves as an opportunity for people to place their hopes on the dissipation of turbulence, an end to their tribulations, and the welcoming of better, more tranquil times. This is truer for 2021 than it has been in a long time – for many, perhaps even a lifetime. The arrival of the new year also marks an important milestone in the history of Hellenism – the bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence.

While hope and optimism are important as the future turns into the present, it’s also important to process and analyze events with an understanding of the past. As usual, the words of perhaps Greece’s greatest writer of the modern era – Alexandros Papadiamantis – serve as an excellent compass.

In his story Guardian of the Quarantined Ships (or Βαρδιάνος στα σπόρκα for anyone interested in reading the Greek version), which is set in 1865, the author tells the story of a mother who disguises herself as a man and impersonates the guardian of a quarantined ship to save her son. At the time, Europe was struck by an outbreak of cholera, and the government of the fledgling Greek state, which still lacked much in infrastructure, had adopted draconian measures to guard against the spread disease. 

Published in 1893 in the Athenian newspaper Acropolis, it was accompanied by a note by the editor explaining that although the story brings back harrowing memories from the cholera outbreak, it does so without inciting fear. In addition to the healing qualities of medicine, the story highlights the therapeutics of faith and ‘storge’ – the Greek word for familial love referring to natural or instinctual affection, such as the love of a parent towards offspring.

In addition to his noble ideals, however, Papadiamantis remain ever rooted in reality and the human condition – in particular, the state of his fellow citizens and the mentalities that prevailed in his country. Well over a century later, many striking similarities continue to exist – both in Greece and abroad.

For example, Papadiamantis notes that “the greatest evil is undoubtedly due to the Greek Government’s incompetence. One could say that this country was freed on purpose in order to prove that it was unfit to govern itself.” The words may be harsh, but throughout the challenges and calamities that have befallen modern Greece in its 200 years of existence, along with the wickedness and brutality of its enemies or the duplicity of its allies, both of which have been abundant, there has been no lack of self-inflicted harm as well, due in large part to the ill-advised policies imposed by self-serving politicians.

As for the cholera epidemic that brought so much suffering during the mid-nineteenth century, according to Papadiamantis, it was more of the pretext than the actual cause. We cite an excerpt from the story below to allow the reader to decide whether Papadiamantis’ words bear any resemblance to the current epidemic that has vexed the world for the past year.

“It is said that the majority of the people who were presented as victims of cholera at the time, actually died of hunger. Perhaps cholera was not present everywhere. However, there was blindness and misery and unspeakable calamity. The people, all of whom suffered, hardened their hearts against each other all the more, constituting the plight infinitely worse. The wealthy who were receiving treatment hardened themselves against the poor and blamed them as the cause of this misfortune on account of their existence. The poor hardened themselves against the wealthy and accused them of causing a rise in the price of food on account of their wealth. All the travelers undergoing treatment were hardened against the residents of the town and accused them of unconscionable profiteering and cruelty, while the truth was that only ten people among the lot of merchants and opportunists – and they are present everywhere – were the profiteers and cruel exploiters of misfortune. The residents of the town were hardened against the travelers and hated them, because they had come to bring them cholera. Evil suspicion, mistrust, and selfishness, which approached the level of the inhumane, prevailed everywhere. All these things lied at the bottom and the fear of cholera was on the surface. One could say that cholera was just the pretext, and that the exploitation of people was the truth. The demon of fear had found seven other demons wickeder than itself and had taken over the soul of the people.”

Amidst charts and numbers – used and misused abundantly throughout the past year – the invocation of science minus the dialogue and discourse, faith and storge seem to have been cast aside by the powers that be. Politicians rely on various

‘teleinquisitors’, who are exceedingly eager to target their fellow citizens “for their own good,” reminding us of the folly of eras past, but the people still have their traditional provisions, with which they have successfully faced so many challenges throughout the centuries with remarkable resilience.

Executive fiat and the exploitation of the crisis by the media (let’s not forget that some people made a fortune over the past year, in contrast to shopkeepers and most working folks) may have conjured up the eight demons to which Papadiamantis refers, but with the arrival of Epiphany, one prays that they may be cast out, like the goblins said by folk tradition to flee with the blessing of the waters.

As a new year, a new decade, and a special bicentennial dawns, may the knowledge of the past widen the understanding of the present and enlighten us in shaping the future.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

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