The pandemic has made us take a good look at ourselves. We need to look even harder

Anosh Irani’s latest book is Translated from the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth. He teaches Creative Writing in the World Languages and Literatures Department at Simon Fraser University.

ISTOCK

In 1951, the French author Marguerite Yourcenar published her novel Memoirs of Hadrian; it is a book I return to time and again, whenever I need to feel recharged. Reading her work is akin to taking a dip in a river; the water is cool and calm – it energizes – and I can see right through it, at the body that lies in its depths, that of the main character, the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Written as a letter from the ailing emperor to his successor Marcus Aurelius, the novel is exquisite in its imagination and restraint, portraying a character examining his own mortality and his place in history.

Upon my most recent encounter with the book a few days ago, one image struck me in particular. Strangely, I did not come across it in the text of the novel, but in a section at the end of the book, wherein the author reflects on the process of writing the novel itself. When confronted with the issue of inhabiting the mind and body of a human being who lived centuries ago, she states: “The problem of time foreshortened in terms of human generations: some five and twenty aged men, their withered hands interlinked to form a chain, would be enough to establish unbroken contact between Hadrian and ourselves.”

Time and mortality.

Is there anything else we are thinking about right now?

I am not surprised that a book written in the 1950s, about a Roman emperor who ruled in the second century, points to our current predicament so accurately. After all, that is what great literature does: it lives both within time and outside of it. It also makes us, the reader, question our own existence. That singular image, of a chain – that most binding of things – made me wonder if it is, in fact, a conduit to freedom.

Like most things, we question freedom, or truly value it, only when it is taken away from us. There is no doubt that the world is a giant prison right now. Our entire planet, this mystical ball that floats in space, has entrapped us. It has entombed us as well. It is precisely at a time like this that we need to chain ourselves to each other. Not physically – although human contact is what so many of us long for – but imaginatively, metaphorically. A chain that is linked by a single question: How the hell did we get here?

For isn’t that what a prisoner asks? What secretly lurks in the cornered heart of every criminal, petty or otherwise?

We are criminals, too. I am not speaking of governments. Nor am I speaking of corporations and institutions in power. I’m talking about you and me – whoever, wherever we are. Our crime is repetition. We, as a race, are addicted to patterns, and it was those “five and twenty aged men” who made me think of this. On my way to the past, no matter where I stopped, I saw one human quality glaring back at me more than any other, repeating itself with deathly precision: unkindness.

But what does unkindness have to do with a pandemic? We need science, not morality; we need to get back to business, not Buddha.

Maybe. But let’s examine our present situation. For a moment, I’d like to point to India, not to lay blame – far from it. India is my home and I have a deep love and respect for it. But I mention it because it is the epicentre of tragedy right now. As a country, air is slowly being sucked out of its lungs. This second wave is far more lethal than the first, and absolutely unforgiving. Completely relentless.

Relentless. That’s us. Unforgiving. That’s us.

Wave after wave. Generation after generation.

The first wave of the virus is gone; the second is thriving, the third … are we already in one? Will there be a fourth? It seems almost … cruel.

Now where have I seen cruelty before?

Right from the time I was a child. Right next door to where I grew up, a stone’s throw away from Mumbai’s red-light district, where girls less than 10 years old were locked up in cages and tortured by 10 men in a single night. Am I, as someone who is currently living in Canada, separate from them? Is my state of being independent of theirs?

If that little girl reaches out to us, extends her hand, will we look the other way?

Yes, we will. We have trained ourselves to.

By repeatedly choosing blindness. By convincing ourselves that we are separate from each other. This virus, in a twisted way (and in the most obvious way, too) is simply reminding us that there is no distance between us anymore. There is no separation, there is no “other.”

And yet, we refuse to learn. As I write this, the news is filled with images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that sense, we are more powerful than the virus. It cannot stop us. Nothing seems to deter us from our natural propensity to destroy each other. Stop anywhere on Ms. Yourcenar’s chain, pick any time in history, and we will be reminded of our dark side, be it gassing people in death chambers or selling oxygen cylinders on the black market.

But is that the purpose of the pandemic – to throw back at us our own bile?

Perhaps purpose is the wrong word. Suffering does not have a purpose, but we can give it meaning. This pandemic is meant to make us take a good look at ourselves.

Whilst we have lived for months without haircuts, as beards have grown, and faces have puffed up and others turned gaunt, aged in a single year, we are staring less into mirrors. In a weird way, it is our vanity that is keeping us humble. But we should be looking at ourselves even more.

According to Ms. Yourcenar, “One has to go into the most remote corners of a subject in order to discover the simplest things…” The problem is that we are investigating the wrong subject. The subject is not the pandemic; it’s us. That’s who we should be examining. And what can be simpler than kindness? We are able to communicate with a satellite in space, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to utter a kind word to a neighbour. You might say, “But there’s inspiration out there, too.” Sure, there is. In the midst of all this horror, one can see our shared humanity – individuals donating time and money, and in countries such as India, going out of their way to find a dose of Remdesivir, or a hospital bed, for a complete stranger.

But the horror – that’s the disease. Compared with our kindness, it’s torrential. That’s what we keep repeating.

At some point, the pandemic will end. We will pick ourselves up, and – resilient primates that we are – we will move on. But there is no moving on. We are not evolving; we are simply going round and round in circles.

Ms. Yourcenar’s human chain made her look into the past.

However, right now, we need to hold hands and look into the future. If we do that, we will understand what this virus is showing us: If someone else is sick, we are sick. Their pain is our pain. One of the most telling symptoms of COVID is when we have lost our sense of taste. Not of food, though. We are unable to taste someone else’s pain.

Years from now, when our children ask us what we did during the pandemic, we will say, “We survived.” But for what? Of what use is survival if we continue to perpetuate the same line of thought and action, if we keep repeating what we have mastered so beautifully, ever since we have been in human form? Inhuman form.

Down the line, we will offer our children the same ugliness.

If the virus is attacking us, we must not fight back. Instead, we must retreat. Surrender to the highest part of ourselves. That is our only power, our foremost duty.

Perhaps our immunity is at an all-time low because our hatred is at an all-time high.

It will take us years to forgive China. Didn’t they start all this? Wait, fortunately for China, it’s India’s turn now. Yes, let’s swiftly remind Indians of what they have done. Who’s next? Worry not, we’ll find someone. We are experts at carrying false wounds and nurturing them for centuries. But when will we carry light?

Will the future Yourcenar, centuries from now, look back at her human chain and stop – halt in her tracks – at the year 2021? Not because she followed the same tired line of darkness, but because she noticed a moment of illumination. We have the opportunity to make that happen; dazzled, she will be forced to shield her eyes when she reaches this present moment, when a relentless disease transformed into an equally relentless kindness. Then, she will recognize us all as Hadrian – emperors of our own souls. Once ailing, we found ways to live. Not just to survive, but to live. Not just to live, but to shine.

The vaccine might prevent us from dying, but it does not have the power to heal.

Only we do. We have to unmask ourselves. We need to peel off everything that is stuck and ugly, and stand in front of each other – unafraid, unjudged, but not unloved.

ANOSH IRANICONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAILPUBLISHED MAY 28, 2021UPDATED 6 HOURS AGO3 COMMENTSSHARE  TEXT SIZEBOOKMARK00:00Voice1x

Anosh Irani’s latest book is Translated from the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth. He teaches Creative Writing in the World Languages and Literatures Department at Simon Fraser University.

ISTOCK

In 1951, the French author Marguerite Yourcenar published her novel Memoirs of Hadrian; it is a book I return to time and again, whenever I need to feel recharged. Reading her work is akin to taking a dip in a river; the water is cool and calm – it energizes – and I can see right through it, at the body that lies in its depths, that of the main character, the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Written as a letter from the ailing emperor to his successor Marcus Aurelius, the novel is exquisite in its imagination and restraint, portraying a character examining his own mortality and his place in history.

Upon my most recent encounter with the book a few days ago, one image struck me in particular. Strangely, I did not come across it in the text of the novel, but in a section at the end of the book, wherein the author reflects on the process of writing the novel itself. When confronted with the issue of inhabiting the mind and body of a human being who lived centuries ago, she states: “The problem of time foreshortened in terms of human generations: some five and twenty aged men, their withered hands interlinked to form a chain, would be enough to establish unbroken contact between Hadrian and ourselves.”

Time and mortality.

Is there anything else we are thinking about right now?

I am not surprised that a book written in the 1950s, about a Roman emperor who ruled in the second century, points to our current predicament so accurately. After all, that is what great literature does: it lives both within time and outside of it. It also makes us, the reader, question our own existence. That singular image, of a chain – that most binding of things – made me wonder if it is, in fact, a conduit to freedom.

Like most things, we question freedom, or truly value it, only when it is taken away from us. There is no doubt that the world is a giant prison right now. Our entire planet, this mystical ball that floats in space, has entrapped us. It has entombed us as well. It is precisely at a time like this that we need to chain ourselves to each other. Not physically – although human contact is what so many of us long for – but imaginatively, metaphorically. A chain that is linked by a single question: How the hell did we get here?

For isn’t that what a prisoner asks? What secretly lurks in the cornered heart of every criminal, petty or otherwise?

We are criminals, too. I am not speaking of governments. Nor am I speaking of corporations and institutions in power. I’m talking about you and me – whoever, wherever we are. Our crime is repetition. We, as a race, are addicted to patterns, and it was those “five and twenty aged men” who made me think of this. On my way to the past, no matter where I stopped, I saw one human quality glaring back at me more than any other, repeating itself with deathly precision: unkindness.

But what does unkindness have to do with a pandemic? We need science, not morality; we need to get back to business, not Buddha.

Maybe. But let’s examine our present situation. For a moment, I’d like to point to India, not to lay blame – far from it. India is my home and I have a deep love and respect for it. But I mention it because it is the epicentre of tragedy right now. As a country, air is slowly being sucked out of its lungs. This second wave is far more lethal than the first, and absolutely unforgiving. Completely relentless.

Relentless. That’s us. Unforgiving. That’s us.

Wave after wave. Generation after generation.

The first wave of the virus is gone; the second is thriving, the third … are we already in one? Will there be a fourth? It seems almost … cruel.

Now where have I seen cruelty before?

Right from the time I was a child. Right next door to where I grew up, a stone’s throw away from Mumbai’s red-light district, where girls less than 10 years old were locked up in cages and tortured by 10 men in a single night. Am I, as someone who is currently living in Canada, separate from them? Is my state of being independent of theirs?

If that little girl reaches out to us, extends her hand, will we look the other way?

Yes, we will. We have trained ourselves to.

By repeatedly choosing blindness. By convincing ourselves that we are separate from each other. This virus, in a twisted way (and in the most obvious way, too) is simply reminding us that there is no distance between us anymore. There is no separation, there is no “other.”

And yet, we refuse to learn. As I write this, the news is filled with images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that sense, we are more powerful than the virus. It cannot stop us. Nothing seems to deter us from our natural propensity to destroy each other. Stop anywhere on Ms. Yourcenar’s chain, pick any time in history, and we will be reminded of our dark side, be it gassing people in death chambers or selling oxygen cylinders on the black market.

But is that the purpose of the pandemic – to throw back at us our own bile?

Perhaps purpose is the wrong word. Suffering does not have a purpose, but we can give it meaning. This pandemic is meant to make us take a good look at ourselves.

Whilst we have lived for months without haircuts, as beards have grown, and faces have puffed up and others turned gaunt, aged in a single year, we are staring less into mirrors. In a weird way, it is our vanity that is keeping us humble. But we should be looking at ourselves even more.

According to Ms. Yourcenar, “One has to go into the most remote corners of a subject in order to discover the simplest things…” The problem is that we are investigating the wrong subject. The subject is not the pandemic; it’s us. That’s who we should be examining. And what can be simpler than kindness? We are able to communicate with a satellite in space, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to utter a kind word to a neighbour. You might say, “But there’s inspiration out there, too.” Sure, there is. In the midst of all this horror, one can see our shared humanity – individuals donating time and money, and in countries such as India, going out of their way to find a dose of Remdesivir, or a hospital bed, for a complete stranger.

But the horror – that’s the disease. Compared with our kindness, it’s torrential. That’s what we keep repeating.

At some point, the pandemic will end. We will pick ourselves up, and – resilient primates that we are – we will move on. But there is no moving on. We are not evolving; we are simply going round and round in circles.

Ms. Yourcenar’s human chain made her look into the past.

However, right now, we need to hold hands and look into the future. If we do that, we will understand what this virus is showing us: If someone else is sick, we are sick. Their pain is our pain. One of the most telling symptoms of COVID is when we have lost our sense of taste. Not of food, though. We are unable to taste someone else’s pain.

Years from now, when our children ask us what we did during the pandemic, we will say, “We survived.” But for what? Of what use is survival if we continue to perpetuate the same line of thought and action, if we keep repeating what we have mastered so beautifully, ever since we have been in human form? Inhuman form.

Down the line, we will offer our children the same ugliness.

If the virus is attacking us, we must not fight back. Instead, we must retreat. Surrender to the highest part of ourselves. That is our only power, our foremost duty.

Perhaps our immunity is at an all-time low because our hatred is at an all-time high.

It will take us years to forgive China. Didn’t they start all this? Wait, fortunately for China, it’s India’s turn now. Yes, let’s swiftly remind Indians of what they have done. Who’s next? Worry not, we’ll find someone. We are experts at carrying false wounds and nurturing them for centuries. But when will we carry light?

Will the future Yourcenar, centuries from now, look back at her human chain and stop – halt in her tracks – at the year 2021? Not because she followed the same tired line of darkness, but because she noticed a moment of illumination. We have the opportunity to make that happen; dazzled, she will be forced to shield her eyes when she reaches this present moment, when a relentless disease transformed into an equally relentless kindness. Then, she will recognize us all as Hadrian – emperors of our own souls. Once ailing, we found ways to live. Not just to survive, but to live. Not just to live, but to shine.

The vaccine might prevent us from dying, but it does not have the power to heal.

Only we do. We have to unmask ourselves. We need to peel off everything that is stuck and ugly, and stand in front of each other – unafraid, unjudged, but not unloved.

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