Keep Calm and Carry On? Let’s Not

keep calm and carry on carry the love
Photo by Jarod Lovekamp on

Over the last couple of days, I have finally landed on some pandemic-related content that piques my interest without throwing me into a tizzy.

Several articles I’ve been reading (linked below) note the similarities between wartime life during WWII and the current crisis. Both were international. Both upended the very fabric of social “normalcy.” Both, ultimately, had/will have a profound effect on industries, and maybe particularly consumer-driven industries, as entire societies rethink their priorities, adopt new habits, and brace for economic change.

In case you didn’t know, that Keep Calm and Carry On poster that became very popular in home design a few years ago (more popular than it was during WWII, in fact) before fizzling out was originally developed by the British Ministry of Information as a rallying cry (or, inside voice?) to their citizens.

Here is an updated one courtesy of the CDC

In the face of airstrikes, supply and food shortages, and an imminent threat of localized warfare, they were trying to suggest a sense of normalcy. As my good friend Wikipedia puts it:

Evocative of the Victorian belief in British stoicism – the “stiff upper lip“, self-discipline, fortitude, and remaining calm in adversity – the poster has become recognised around the world.

What is normal?

While I think all of us would agree that a sense of normalcy would be really nice right now, I think we also need to investigate what normalcy really is. Because, yes, I can take a shower and get dressed, tend to my house, and face-time my mom, but these do not negate the fact that our world is suffering from a pandemic that is both the most natural thing in the world and unprecedented in its scale, at least in our lifetimes.

For instance, I am now taking part in a virtual school experiment I did not sign up for. I am grateful for the graciousness of my teachers and fellow students, and for the technological tools to connect in this way. And it’s true – it creates a sense of normalcy.

But I would be lying if I said I was functioning at anywhere near “normal” capacity. When your entire way of life is upended in less than a week, it really puts things in perspective. I struggle to understand how going to school and “doing well” and achieving things should be my number one priority. I resent those who have launched their whole bodies into volunteer work when I am not in a position, health-wise, to risk that kind of interaction. I worry for those who are smiling through fear and grief and pain in order to present the shiny veneer of keeping calm and carrying on.

I have been inundated with emails requesting that I support small business or join a Zoom Chat to learn how to market my blog in the midst of this collective illness. And, while I sympathize with the urgent sense that life must go on, I wonder what part of our collective soul dies when we must – and I mean MUST – continue to operate in the marketplace. We are selling and buying and marketing and spinning our tales in the midst of a global health emergency, and I am left thinking at the end of each day:

What are we doing?

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

Who benefits when we keep calm and carry on?

In the short term, the reality is that millions (maybe billions) of people globally will be or are already impacted by the Capitalist system grinding to a halt, and by unpredictable shifts in consumer patterns. I don’t want to discount the fact that the economy and other systems we live under fundamentally impact people’s survival.

But there’s a pernicious component of that slogan that looks a lot like keeping our heads down and ignoring the fact that a system that prioritizes purchasing power over human lives – one that cannot survive two weeks of turmoil – is sick. If this is normal, then we are being poisoned. And the current crisis is not to blame for that fact.

Viewed in that light, I think we have a moral obligation to cease our carrying on, and to examine what it means to have a crystal clear view of the problem, one that activists and thought leaders, especially from marginalized communities, have been warning us about for centuries. Things are falling apart institutionally and economically not because of physiological crisis but because of the kind of systems-collapse we could have seen (and let’s be honest, most of us saw it) coming.

In a sermon preached to students in the fall of 1939, C.S. Lewis said:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal…We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.

We must come to terms with the fact that nothing is normal. In fact, normalcy as a metric of stability or peace is altogether false. To pretend that there was some past – two weeks ago or two centuries ago – in which things were objectively better is to erase the long reality of human and ecological suffering.

C.S. Lewis goes on to suggest that the best thing that these students could do in this new reality was continue to seek out truth and beauty, not by ignoring their present reality, but in defiance of it. Not in an attempt to “keep calm and carry on,” but to work out divine purposes in the world.

I have seen a broad swatch of responses to this new reality, and I would argue that most of them are probably warranted. We need to give ourselves grace during this time. Grief and anxiety look like a lot of things, and so do their coping mechanisms.

But I think it’s important for us to cease business as usual for long enough to see that we have an opportunity, and even an obligation, to imagine new ways of doing business, building community, and living on this earth.

I don’t mean that we should “use this moment as an opportunity” in an economic sense, as if even pandemic must be twisted into productive time in pursuit of building capital. What I mean is that, as C.S. Lewis says, this is a moment of clarification.

  • I see businesses and their employees collapsing under the weight of capitalism’s unsustainable demands.
  • I see hard-working people suffering as CEOs continue to take an income.
  • I see corporations shutting down affiliate accounts while continuing to profit from influencer marketing.
  • I see ecological advocates suggesting that forced closures are good, in a rhetorical move that borders dangerously on fascism.
  • I see governments and news sources dedicating their press time to the stock market while people die in overcrowded hospitals.

What are we doing?

All I know for sure is that the best thing I can do, right now, is put my glasses on and keep my head up. I’ve carried on for long enough.

Articles I’ve Been Reading:

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. THIS! I’ve been thinking a lot about these sorts of things too. In a way I like how this is forcing people to re-evaluate what’s important and how much we’ve been dependent upon a horribly unequal consumer-driven capitalist economy, but also – what’s the backlash to this going to be like when we see the end of it? That just brings home the point that we really do need to start thinking in other ways about how we function in general.

  2. Thank you Leah. I needed this…

  3. A lot to think about… thank you.

  4. C. S. Lewis “learning in wartime” was awesome! I’m assuming you read it:)

    1. yes! That’s where I pulled the quote from, but then I forgot to link to it.

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