Monday, March 1, 2021

    The Irresistible Virus and the Road to Sanity

    As the coronavirus has severely wounded our mental landscape, the question arises whether it is still possible to retain our sanity and live gracefully.

    There seems to be no end to it. With the spread of the coronavirus, the ever-expanding statistics of death and the all-pervading psychic anxiety, we are broken. With nervousness, acute loneliness and chronic uncertainty, our mental landscape has become wounded and crippled. It seems there is nothing that can enchant us anymore. There is no rainbow in the sky; poetry is dead; and the ‘songs of innocence’ have lost their meaning amid dead bodies and chaotic crematoriums. Instead, our everyday conversation is filled with all sorts of negativities: a young boy with high fever and breathing difficulty is allowed to die because there is no hospital to admit him; an apartment in the neighborhood has been sealed because someone has been diagnosed with Covid positive; a Bollywood celebrity too cannot escape it, and has to be taken to Mumbai’s Nanavati hospital; and everyone is suffering—doctors, health workers, police officials, a friend’s father or a neighbor’s aunt.  It is mysterious. It is irresistible. It is here—anytime, anywhere.

    Not solely that. At times, we ask ourselves: how much can we bear? Cyclone and earthquake, encounter deaths and political decadence, betrayals and conspiracies, or narratives of suicide and tales of hunger and joblessness: is it the end of everything? When depression is normalized and the moral foundations of society crumble, life tends to lose its zeal and meaning.  

    And paradoxically, this is also the moment of realization. And, I tend to believe, our collective therapy lies in the possibility of this rediscovery—the awakening of the fundamental truths of existence.

     The warmth of human touch  

    True, a professional psychiatrist ‘listens’ to someone suffering from depression or schizophrenia; or a counsellor can be contacted for instant advice. However, the rhythm of life requires not merely this sort of ‘professional’ help; essentially, it needs the solidity of trust: the hope that there is a friend, a neighbor, a comrade, a colleague, a sister, a brother who can be approached at any time, and one can reveal the psychic/emotional turmoil one is passing through without the fear of being laughed at and insulted. In other words, it is the warmth of human touch—or, the art of compassionate listening—that heals, makes one see a fountain in a desert, and generates a feeling that love has not withered away. 

    As the pandemic has legitimated the discourse of ‘social distancing’ and human interactions are severely limited, the already prevalent loneliness has further been intensified. True, for many of us, technology has played an enabling role. Be it the simple mobile phone or the skype—we seem to be connected. A friend in Gorakhpur, a cousin in Dubai, an old teacher in Mumbai, or a maternal uncle in New York: the world gets compressed; technology conquers the barriers of physical distance; and we meet, talk, laugh, cry or crack jokes. True, it helps; the vibrations of the human voice appear to be the most sought after medicines in a world where everyone is afraid, and scared of the other as we have begun to define ourselves as potential carriers of the virus. 

     Yet, technology is a means; it is not the soul of communication. We can communicate only when we acknowledge the living presence of the other, become receptive, open the windows of our consciousness, and cultivate the art of mindful listening. This is not about what we tend to equate with the much-hyped ‘communication revolution’: the continual display of purely self-centric Facebook shares, WhatsApp messages, and indulgence with all that is glossy and ‘viral’. Quite often, real communication is lost amid this depthless culture of instantaneity. In fact, the ecstasy of the communion can take place only if we are willing to question our narcissistic selves, our urge to dominate and conquer, and realize that to live is to connect, and to love is to be loved. 

    Today at this moment of collective depression we are all longing for this touch—a wonderful message from a retired schoolteacher, a call from a niece who recalls the book you gave her as a birthday gift when she used to long for the arrival of the monsoons to find her poetry, or a deep conversation with a friend who reminds you of the poem you used to recite in the college canteen: 

    In the darkness she spoke:

     ‘All these years, where had you been?’

    Her eyebrows arched like the soaring wings of a bird—

    She—Banolata Sen of Natore.   

    Are we ready to realize and appreciate the worth of this touch—the company of human souls? Think of it. We became too busy with our ‘careers; the power of money made us forget the power of love; we measured the ‘utility’ of time, and as a result, all non-instrumental engagements—those ‘lazy’ moments of love and laughter, tears and silences—began to look ‘meaningless’. We thought that with money and technology, we could conquer everything; we could hire doctors and psychiatrists, and order Italian and Thai food from the best restaurants. As techno-capitalism transformed everything into mere commodities for sale, we began to devalue the warmth of human touch. And with this ‘hollowness’, we failed to realize what T. S. Eliot expressed so brilliantly:

    This is the way the world ends

    This is the way the world ends

    This is the way the world ends

    Not with a bang but a whimper.  

    Is it the time to realize that everything is meaningless without love, without the spontaneity of human touch? Is it the time to realize that professional doctors possess only the techniques to postpone death; but it is the ecstasy of communion, or the enchanting prayers of the loved ones that alone can make death meaningful, and transform the art of dying into a pilgrimage?  

    Chanting the prayers of gratitude   

    When things fall apart, it is not easy to talk about wonder, gratitude and enchantment. Instead, a sense of the ‘absurd’ haunts us; and meaninglessness or nihilism darkens our consciousness. Or, somehow we only try to survive—just biologically. But in this survival strategy, there is no ecstasy, no art of love, no music; it is only to spend every moment with fear and anxiety. The proponents of pure scientism see its necessity; and the so-called believers talk to the priests, offer all sorts of pujas, and imagine that somehow the all-powerful God would rescue them, even if others die. Again in this religion—born out of fear, there is no higher purpose; it is merely a business contract with the mighty God the priests have invented. 

    Is it possible to take our prayers to an altogether different level? Can we pray not merely for our biological survival, but for articulating our gratitude, and giving us the strength to accept with absolute humility the ceaseless play of life and death, creation and destruction, finite and infinite, and temporal and eternal? In other words, through our prayers can we transform ourselves from proud conquerors or clever strategists to humble wanderers? In such prayers, I believe, lies our true religiosity. Yes, scientists will work in their laboratories; and the vaccines will come. And once again economists would speak of the recovery of the ‘growth rate’; shiny malls and restaurants would attract the visitors; and football matches in gorgeous stadiums would excite the crowd. But then, there is no escape from the existential riddle; even amid the celebration of ‘life’, death would continue to knock at our doors. And even if the virus disappears, death can always find any other excuse. In other words, there is no meaningful celebration of life without the acknowledgement of death. 

    Even if death is here and so near, can we still look at the sky, communicate with the distant star, feel the vibrations of the whispering tree as we pass through a hilly terrain, walk through the mysterious woods and experience a sense of gratitude that we are lucky to witness the mysterious play of creation? Only then is it possible for us to feel what Rabindranath Tagore regarded as the ‘poet’s religion’, and compose the finest poetry of existence: 

    I have seen, have heard, have lived;

    In the depth of the known have felt

    The truth that exceeds all knowledge

    Which fills my heart with wonder and I sing.


    Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU, New Delhi.


    1. I am so glad to read this heart warming article by Prof. Pathak. This actually reminded me a poem by Rumi, titled the Guest House:

      “This being human is a guest house
      Every morning a new arrival

      A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

      Welcome and entertain them all!
      Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
      Who violently sweep your house
      Empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably.
      He may be clearing out for some new delight.

      The dark thought, the shame, the malice
      Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

      Be grateful for whatever comes
      Because each has been sent
      As a guide from beyond.”



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