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Voices / Column

Can a pandemic restore humanity?

The vast majority of us realize the urgency of compassionate, face-to-face interactive community. We carry on, and hopefully grow from the experience of this shared, separative crisis.

Columnist Elayne Clift has written about women and social issues from the earliest days of this newspaper.

Saxtons River

When Albert Camus published his allegorical story The Plague in 1947 about a deadly contagion sweeping the French city of Oran in 1849, he raised a number of questions about the nature of the human condition.

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends,” one of his characters says.

Later, Camus reflects that “a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour [...] when all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”

As we share the experience of a dystopian world of rapidly spreading disease, political despair, and economic disaster, Camus’ words have renewed meaning. They help us remember what is truly important in a world in which we find ourselves increasingly isolated from one another, not only now in an abundance of caution, but because of growing isolation derived from social media in a computer age which fosters mutual disconnection.

That kind of solitude has meant a notable decline in courtesy, responsiveness, and compassion, such that we no longer feel it necessary to respond to each other, to check on each other, to truly care about others. Our communities are now virtual to a large extent, and loneliness has crept into the lives of many, especially those with limited mobility or age-related restrictions.

We have for too long been disinterested in others and disconnected. Basic responsiveness and reciprocity have all but disappeared.

Now we find ourselves living on a planet spiraling out of control, its inhabitants pleading for a return to safety, and a return to communal well-being. It’s almost as if a higher order — some may call it God — is begging us to return to our fundamental humanity before it’s too late.

The Earth itself seems to weep for what we’ve lost by casting upon us catastrophic floods, fires, and famine as we struggle to survive and now to cling to hope.

* * *

Of course, there are those among us who bear witness and who offer heart-based action. We donate money, share information, and volunteer while learning to grasp the lessons of isolation, among which are knowing how much we need one another for comfort and survival, practically and emotionally. We recognize our shared fragility and reach out with virtual hugs.

In contrast, there will always be those people who don’t look beyond themselves and who ignore and exploit others while remaining complacent — and even find perverse pleasure in their ignorance and selfishness.

We may never be able to expect more of them. As a Facebook post admonished, “Next time you want to judge boat people, refugees, migrants fleeing war-torn lands, just remember, we fought over toilet paper.”

But the vast majority of us realize the urgency of compassionate, face-to-face interactive community. We often mourn the downside of computer-driven solitude and work-from-home opportunities, even though now our solitude and work are relieved by computer connection.

Above all, we now can understand more than ever what can happen when our political leadership fails us and what we can do for one another in the face of such failure.

Still, we carry on, and hopefully grow from the current experience of this shared, separative crisis. We offer virtual comfort not in fear and despair so much as with the knowledge that our aloneness is no longer sufficient once we reach a new normal.

We understand that we must actively and visibly renew our obligation to, and affection for, one another. Perhaps in that renewed knowledge we can dare to steward ourselves toward a new world in which we shepherd each other back to a place where we can once again wrap our arms around each other in the knowledge that, together, we can, as Winston Churchill once said, “brace ourselves,” to be able once again to say, “This was [our] finest hour.”

Even more inspiring is “Pandemic,” a poem by Lynn Ungar, a San Francisco poet.

“Know that we are connected/in ways that are terrifying and beautiful,” Ungar writes. “Know that our lives/are in one another’s hands.”

“Reach out your heart,” she continues. “Reach out your words./Reach out the tendrils/of compassion that move, invisibly,/ where we cannot touch.”

“Promise this world your love —/for better for for worse, in sickness and health,/so long as we all shall live.”

Amen.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #554 (Wednesday, March 25, 2020). This story appeared on page B4.

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