Fragile, Handle with Care

Fragile, Handle with Care

“He stood on his head, the wretched man, who was made entirely of glass, and when someone approached him he would scream tremendously, pleading with words and sensible reasoning that no one should approach him because he would break; because he was made entirely of glass - from head to toe.” This is how Miguel de Cervantes, in one of the Exemplary Novels (a collection of short stories from 1613), describes Tomás Rodaja), a young lawyer nicknamed "Doctor Glass" who, like the Don Quixote the author wrote in during this same time period, is a madman who tells the truth to those who think of themselves as being “normal.” A woman poisons Tomás with a magic potion that did not have the desired effect of forcing him to love her, but had an entirely different outcome: the young man, miraculously survived, is convinced that he has become crystal. He wears baggy clothes, has no close contacts, walks strictly in the middle of the street, sleeps on straw, and fears that the roof tiles will fall on him. His friends try in vain to help him: "They threw themselves at him and hugged him, urging him to pay attention and see how he didn't break. However, by doing this, the only result was the poor man would throw himself to the ground screaming relentlessly, fall unconscious, and not come to his senses for four hours."

On these intense days we feel like glass, too. Fragile and frightened by every moment of contact, we had to lock ourselves indoors. The effect is as unexpected as it is disruptive: relationships show themselves in their truest form. Narrow spaces and ample time cause inevitable friction and clashes, yet only when we become transparent do we rediscover the quality of our relationships. It is Tomás himself who offers us the solution. Thanks to his madness, the young man has acquired the power of transparency: "He asked that they speak to him from a distance and even ask him what they wanted because he would respond to everything with much more wisdom, since he was a man of glass and not of flesh; in fact, glass, as a fine and delicate material, allowed the soul to operate more quickly and effectively than the body, heavy and made of earthly matter.” In Cervantes' account, Tomás' fame for wisdom and frankness grows, and many people come to him for advice or simply to listen to his lucid madness: that young man tells the truth in no uncertain terms, unmasking the lies and pretenses of his interlocutors. The same thing can happen to us in these days of "inevitable" relationships. How long has it been since we have faced wounds, silences, lies, grudges, and secrets, which have alienated us from those who live with us under the same roof? Now, precisely because we can no longer hide, like Dr. Glass, we have the possibility to make transparent what had been obscured by daily external activities or dulled by repetitive housework and routine. And the truth found out may be a weapon or a remedy. It is up to us to choose what to do with our condition as men and women of precious Murano glass: subjected to the incandescent fire of the emergency, we are forced to become malleable again. Will we be able to reshape our relationships thanks to this unexpected tenderness or, remaining rigid, will we shatter each other? The time to spend together will seem very long, but it is nothing compared to what it can mean our futures. I know families who are rediscovering the beauty of being together with forgotten pastimes such as board games or simply having meals with friends; a husband who has to protect his wife who has weak immune system with new tenderness; siblings glued to TV series who, on other occasions, would never have watched a show together; couples who rediscover common interests forgotten along the way; fathers who read stories to their children; mothers who unleash their creativity to engage children locked in the house for many hours; people in the same building who help each other with shopping or other needs... We can learn again to "handle with care" the fragility of others: the virus is lethal even for the individualism that poisons us daily.

At the end of the story, Tomás recovers, but everyone still prefers the bizarre Dr. Glass who told the truth in no uncertain terms: so he is forced to migrate where no one knows him to start a new life. And will we be able to treasure these days of truth, even if difficult, exhausting, sometimes impossible, as an unrepeatable opportunity for truth in fundamental relationships? We have been forced to become made of glass, that is, more authentic than we believe we ordinarily are behind masks, armor, habits, and roles that make us feel safe, but perhaps obscure our true selves from the very ones who have the right to our comic, tender, and fragile transparency, in order to love it.

Article published in English with permission of the author and by courtesy of Corriere della Sera where originally was published