Perhaps we need to re-learn our lessons in empathy. There is a need to connect with the people as well as the earth
“If there were good men, there would never be this rapture in nature…. Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Two things that have been wanting urgent attention are human relationships and our earth, wronged and wounded beyond proportions. When nothing worked, Covid-19 pandemic, apparently, did the trick.
Entangled in your daily web of stories, you could never find time to just sit back for a while, unwind, and realise what you were really missing out on. But this is your time. Talk to your children, listen to their innocent complaints, be a spectator of their little jealousies, and take pleasure in addressing their problems forthwith. In the rush of everyday life, you must have ignored the catches in your spouse’s voice and the dimpled smile on the face of your youngest. This is your time.
In his recent 2020 book, Pandemic! : COVId-19 Shakes the World, Slavoj Zizek rightly observes: “So there is a hope that corporeal distancing will even strengthen the intensity of our link with others. It is only now, when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me.”
A little too estranged to ourselves, neither the poets nor social scientists have been able to convince us to get out of our crazy go-getting profiles and stop this heady chase of money, power, and comfort. Each one of us has been scared lest we should fall short of reaching the goals for us. Only now have we slowed down.
Never in recent human history have sports galas, musical concerts, congregational gatherings, international travel, teaching and learning in educational institutions, political caucuses, yeas and nays of international diplomacy, the noise of who-will-attack-whom, trade relations, goodwill UN missions, the vanity of human wishes and their good-natured revelry been brought to such a halt. Thank this new pathogen for jolting us out of our stupor and re-humanizing us by bringing us face to face with our personal realities. It has suddenly brought back to us the painful realisation that we might suddenly die without having the chance to say goodbye to our dear ones. As the toll goes up every day, we are getting more conscious of our vulnerability and, ironically, allocating more time to our families.
Inspirational writers and speakers have been our guides on how to be more successful in everyday life in normal times - when all is right with the world. They have helped us dig out our latent talent and improve interpersonal skills. A Dale Carnegie, for instance, would teach us How to Enjoy Your Life and Your Job. He would tell is that if we address people by their names, we can become popular, but he would not give us lessons in empathy, sacrifice, self-denial, and social welfare. The likes of Napoleon Hill might still be preparing notes on letting people know how to Think and Grow Rich. The reason is that writers of how-to books pander to the capitalist machine; they don’t teach us how to make friends as a moral necessity but as tricks of the trade in order to be successful in a competitive world.
Those who deal in morals ask you to turn inward, make up for the wrongs you have done to others, and focus on the human connection you’ve been ignoring because of your life in the fast lane. The coronavirus crisis is a sudden reality check thrown your way if you feel like turning your life around and re-arranging your priority lists.
Generally, when it comes to environmental studies, the centrality of human beings is considered unethical in terms of the human capacity to damage eco- and biospheres through deforestation, jerry-built housing schemes, air-pollution, and killing of animals and birds, etc. The going-green slogans imply that the non-human need to be brought at par with the human. Only then might the issues of environmental protection and global warming be addressed effectively.
Rachel Carson dedicates her famous book on environmental hazards, Silent Spring, to Albert Schweitzer who said: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” The irony of our history is that what could not be accomplished by climate change activism (by people like Al Gore) and environmental organisations, like the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), Green Peace, and UNEP has been done by the new pathogen. Martha Henriques of BBC Future wrote on March 27 that “Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen across continents as countries try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus… As industries, transport networks and businesses have closed down, it has brought a sudden drop in carbon emissions. Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 percent because of measures to contain the virus.” The world has been considerably de-carbonised, but are we up for keeping our earth like that? At least, for once, we have been facilitated, though at a huge cost.
Though there are doubts, in Zizek’s words, that “this epidemic will make us any wiser”, it is high time we realised what to do with our planet and how to go about our human bonds. When EM Forster wrote A Passage to India, he invoked GM Moore’s philosophy of “Only Connect” in order to see if the British and the Indians could become friends. In the times of Corona, we need to learn our lessons in empathy and try to connect with people and earth simultaneously. Only then shall our world be a livable and sustainable place. While half of humanity is now confined to their homes reconciling with the new “normal”, we must do what Elizabeth Sewell writes in her poem, New Year Resolutions:
“I’ll drain/ Long draughts of quiet/ As a purgation/ Will think/ Twice daily/ Who I am./ Will lie o’ nights/ In the bony arms of Reality/ And be
The writer is Head of the Department of English (Graduate Studies) at National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. He may be reached at [email protected]