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In the midst of life & death

Will humankind learn from the crisis, and live with love and gratitude?

In the midst of life & death

Tough going: Neither the glitz of malls nor the narcissism of our political masters is of any help in this hour of national crisis. PTI

Avijit Pathak


Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. Viktor E Frankl

Afriend dies; a student narrates the horrifying experience of arranging an oxygen cylinder for her Covid-infected mother; a colleague passes through traumatic hours with severe breathing difficulty before a bed is arranged in a suburban hospital — the city I live in is crumbling. Neither the glitz of the malls symbolising the affluence of the aspiring class in neoliberal India nor the narcissism of our political masters is of any help. We smell death; we find ourselves amid unbearable pain and suffering; and we are broken and wounded. How much can we bear?

Well, there are moments when we long for some scientific answer to this question. A medical expert’s opinion, a mathematical model predicting the shape of the curve of infections and death; or a specialised research on the power of the vaccines to minimise the severity of the disease: yes, science makes us alert, and possibly gives us the means to win the war against the virus. Yet, our inner restlessness refuses to wither away. There are moments when we become terribly angry, and blame the morally bankrupt and irresponsible political class for spreading the virus — the way they declared India’s ‘success story’ to combat the virus so early, allowed the Kumbh mela to happen, or encouraged large gatherings and rallies at the time of the recent elections. Yet, despite this anguish, we realise our helplessness. Or who knows we deserve what we are, and in the prevalent politics we see nothing but our own shadows?

At this intense moment of pain and suffering, we also long for some sort of spiritual answer. Possibly, it is a quest for a meaning, an urge to understand the truth of existence, or a journey to the interiority of our consciousness. To begin with, let us reflect on impermanence. It is true that intellectually and theoretically we all know that the world we see, touch and perceive is impermanent; everything is changing. Yet, because of our blind attachment, we refuse to accept this impermanence. When life appears to be a picnic party, we tend to feel that fun and pleasure will go on forever. Or, for that matter, we are so attached to our egos that with the continual presentation of narcissistic selves, we tend to give the impression that we are immortal — beyond suffering, sickness and death. It is sad that even though we have mastered techno-science and cultivated instrumental rationality, seldom do we try to learn the art of living with this sense of impermanence. Is it that we need a pandemic to confront this fundamental truth of our earthly existence: the body I am so attached to (imagine the growth of beauty/fashion industry in our times) might not even get a dignified space at the chaotic crematorium; or despite having all sorts of medical insurances, you might not get a bed in the hospital, and just die without the presence of loved ones? It is not easy to accept this harsh truth of impermanence. Yet, we might experience something deep and profound with the acceptance of impermanence.

Possibly, we begin to learn the meaning of gratitude. Things are impermanent; yet, for some time we have got an opportunity to find ourselves in this world amid this blue sky, these mountains, forests and rivers, or amid the presence of the loved ones. And to live is to live with this sense of gratitude. This is like seeing ourselves as humble wanderers or seekers, not egotistic conquerors. Again, ironically, it is the pandemic that is forcing us to realise the meaning of this forgotten virtue. These days after a traumatic night filled with the ever-flowing news of death and loss, when you see the rising sun in the morning what else can you do? With folded hands, you articulate your prayerful gratitude: ‘I am still alive; I can hear the whisper of trees, the chirping of birds, or I can see the tender face of my child’.

And finally, with gratitude begins the abundance of love. Who knows tomorrow you and I can be merged with the statistics of Covid-related death? Isn’t it the time to give our best to each other and love deeply and intensely? Who knows today might be our last day? Why do we destroy this moment when we are alive with such bitterness, negativity, envy and jealousy? Possibly, the suffering that the pandemic has caused has also a meaning. It is conveying a message: there is no hypothetical ‘tomorrow’; to live is to live here and now, and at this very moment with a deep awareness of impermanence, love

and gratitude.

The pandemic too is not permanent. Science will equip us with better medicines and vaccines to win this ‘war’; or the political class will come forward with more advanced ‘economic’ solutions to take this technocratic/consumerist world to ‘normalcy’. However, the moot question is whether humankind will learn something deep from this crisis, redefine the rhythm of life and death, and live with tenderness, humility and boundless love and gratitude. It will be really tragic if the survivors choose to play the same game with an illusory notion of egotistic pride and immortality of their ‘success stories’ before they are shattered by yet another catastrophe.

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