Clapping in the dark

When the call went out on the BBC news that people were to “clap for carers” and show support for the frontline workers of the UK on Thursday nights, my friends were amongst the thousands to respond.


Adam and Alyson live in the gorgeous middle of nowhere in Herefordshire. Lockdown hasn’t looked so different for their little family. Working from home, cultivating a garden, staying as local as their toddler’s little legs can walk, and getting jobs done in between the baby’s naps and feeds was pretty much life anyway. Of course it’s not all easy even though the consequences of lockdown are minimal for them. They deeply miss their time with grandparents, as many do, and they struggle to stop the kids from hugging their little friends when they come across neighbours also taking walks in the meadow, out the back of the house. After all, how do you, and why would you, want to explain the concept of a pandemic to a little girl in yellow boots, whose main concern is how big a stick she can drag home whilst also picking wild flowers?


Their nearest neighbour is an elderly gentleman called Reg, whose large garden shares a boundary with their own. I remember them telling me about Reg so enthusiastically when they first moved in, a year or so ago. Reg delights in their daughter, and both households savor the exchanges over the fence, the sharing of what they’ve grown in their gardens, and the daily contact with another person. This kind old man who could be an extra great-grandpa, lives alone and misses his wife who is in a care home that can better support her needs as a sufferer of dementia, but who can’t take visitors these days.


The first Thursday night of clapping for carers, Adam and Al stood alone in their living room and applauded in front of the news. They said it felt odd, a bit silly even, to stand alone in a room and clap, with no one else to hear it. But at the same time, so much of what we choose to do in secret, when no one is watching, is actually a huge indicator of who we really are, what we value, and what our character is like. Even alone with no one to witness their applause, I guess my friends decided to privately choose thankfulness over fearfulness, and stand for those standing on the front line. What we do in secret matters. And my friends chose to clap.


After seeing moving footage of whole streets standing outside front doors to make some serious noise on behalf of the NHS and key workers, Adam and Al decided that as the next Thursday clapping came around, they would stand outside too. Even though they live on a leafy lane with no one else’s front door visible from their own. Even though no one would know the difference. Again, what we do when no one is watching speaks volumes, even if in reality, there’s no one else to hear the sound. So, with the girls asleep and the sun gone with them, the two tentatively ventured out of their front door to stand alone in the darkness and clap, and clap, and clap to the night air. Because being grateful over fearful remains a choice we can take, a stand we can make, and sometimes courage sounds like clapping. 


It was all magic and dusk and silence as they stepped outside, the only sound being the comforting noise of nearby sheep as the sun waved its final goodbye. Like the glassy smooth surface of a perfectly still lake, it almost felt like time was suspended and that to break the silence would be sacrilege. And yet, they had come to answer the 8pm call. Clap clap clap. After a few minutes of their own modest appreciation for the nation’s every day heroes, Adam and Al became quite still again. Quietening themselves in the gentle hold of the night air, they let their thanks to those who could not hear, drift into the sky, twinkling with the hope of stars. And then, out from the inky atmosphere they heard it. Clap, clap, clap. Echoing into the dark countryside, a solitary but solid pair of hands was joining in the tiny chorus. Clap clap clap. 


The next morning, Al messaged Reg’s daughter. He was the only neighbour it could have been. And they wanted to reach him, to tell him from so close yet so far away, that they had heard him. They were there too. Clapping in the dark. They wanted to tell him that his hands gave theirs strength. That it mattered that he was present with them, and that they felt less alone knowing someone else had chosen to stand in the dark to say thank you to the sky, and yet somehow also be part of a national noise of gratitude. 


The message back was instant and warm. “He heard you too.” Reg had heard the applause, felt the courage in him rise, and the strength to go on clapping. Clapping for his wife, clapping for his aging friends with letters stating their vulnerability in stark dark ink, keeping them in their houses. He clapped for his far off yet so close family and the little girl who lived next-door who used to visit him and now has to leave baked goods packaged up at a distance by his porch. He clapped because he heard he wasn’t alone out there in the dark and the space and the distance, and because he wanted others to know the same. 


Thursdays have a touch of hope about them now for Adam and Al. I’d see it as a touch of God. Perhaps clapping for carers is not just from an expectation of a new habit, but a soulful response to our circumstances. It’s not a Peter Pan wishful thought that we do believe in fairies, and if we just clap hard enough maybe they’ll come back to life. We can’t bring our loved ones back by applause, but we can bring strength to the hands of those who care for them by clapping them. Maybe to clap is to join in a national moment of prayer? Hands touching together, over and over, the thank you, thank you, thank you of a heart beat, the rhythm of gratitude. Clap clap clap. 


And in the middle of nowhere, someone is there with us. We are not alone the darkness. Like Reg, who they cannot physically see, and yet is unquestionably alongside Adam and Al in the sacred space of Thursday nights, we can choose to stand in the dark, even alone, even though no one is watching and maybe no one can hear us. And we clap. In faith. In hope. In love. We clap. And we find that there is community in solidarity, there is a response in the dark, and that the faint but steady clap of another’s hands joining with our own, for the good of others, maybe even just for the benefit of us hearing it, makes the moment holy. 


Clap clap clap. May the Reg’s of this world hear the hands of young parents, of friends and families and students and toddlers, and may they know they are heard even if not seen. And that they are not seen because we long to one day see them every day, and hold their hands and bring them vegetables and flowers and good news and bread that gives life. And may we hear the comfort and grace of the hands of Reg, alone in the dark so that we don’t feel so alone. Like the silent but solid presence of God, who named himself Emmanual so we’d know for sure that God is with us, even now, even in this time. And even as we clap into the darkness, perhaps we can hear the echos of divine applause. 

Miriam Swanson

Global Student Mission Leader

Miriam helps equip the church for student mission internationally. She's based in the USA and hungry to see young adults follow Jesus with all of who they are. 

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