Most people who have been confined to their homes for a while are not unaffected by the experience. For some it has been very hard and for others a revelation. And we can't help but notice a shift when we emerge into the outside world. It doesn’t look the same. We see some folks being very careful about the risk of transmission of further infection. Others are completely careless, like school kids being let out to play.
Behind that, there's the hope that everything will come back to normal and be like before. Of course as time moves on nothing is ever quite like it was before, or as we imagined it was before.
In many places the protests against social injustice have heightened the drama created by the health crisis. A single shocking event in the US has engendered an awareness of broad and endemic racism and other discriminations which has echoed in protests around the world. There is a longing to fix dysfunctions and injustices in society that have been around for a long time, and to make a new start.
A world out of balance
Certain countries are trying to return to a semblance of normal life, as the pandemic continues its relentless global sweep, posing a threat not just to lives but to livelihoods. The underlying imbalances of our world are rising to the surface.
Nothing is the same; and will not go back to being the same. All this calls into question our most basic sense of security, and gives the impression that we are at a watershed, or a crossroads.
What kind of world will it be? As poorer nations are being swept by an accelerating crisis for which there is no adequate protection for most individuals, in the richer countries the talk is of getting back to business, restarting the economy.
Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, March 25 2020:
Advanced economies are unveiling unprecedented economic stimulus packages. African countries, by contrast, lack the wherewithal to make similarly meaningful interventions. Yet if the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world. That is why the current strategy of uncoordinated country-specific measures, while understandable, is myopic, unsustainable and potentially counterproductive. A virus that ignores borders cannot be tackled successfully like this.
For many leaders the priority is to get the economy back on track For some autocrats the current situation has opened new possibilities for controlling their populations, although others are facing a backlash as their uncaring practices are brought into relief. The hard truth is that while the rich world faces the complications of recession, multitudes of people in poorer countries are likely to face starvation.
Meanwhile international relations continue their slide into conflict and chaos. Rivalries and distrust short-circuit the possibility of global cooperation. It is sad to see the superpowers slugging it out for dominance when the world needs compassionate leadership and cooperation.
In the words of historian and futurologist Yuval Noah Harari:
In previous global crises — such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic — the US assumed the role of global leader. But the current US administration has abdicated the job of leader. It has made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far more than about the future of humanity.
If the void left by the US isn’t filled by other countries, not only will it be much harder to stop the current epidemic, but its legacy will continue to poison international relations for years to come. Yet every crisis is also an opportunity. We must hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity.
Are we going to go back to business as usual, guaranteeing the worst outcomes of the far greater challenge of climate change? That menace is not only looming, but in many places its effects are already a concrete reality.
Yuval Noah Harari:
Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.
A shift in culture
What is needed is a shift in culture. Can we even imagine a culture in which we care for each other, regardless of distances and differences? In many places local communities have found a new sense of solidarity in trying to fill in the gaps left by their leaders. This involves millions of acts of simple kindness.
The Dalai Lama, in a recent interview with the BBC:
If a member of your own community suffers, then you develop a sense of concern, a more compassionate feeling.
In the past there has been too much emphasis on ‘my continent, my nation, my religion’. Now that thinking is out of date. Now we should think, ‘Humanity: seven billion human beings.’
Can we make a priority of caring not only for our fellow humans but for the billions of non-human inhabitants of our planet and the environment that keeps them and us alive? We are all aware of the huge vested interests pushing to maintain the status quo. But there is another difficulty: biologically we are creatures of habit, now faced with unprecedented circumstances that require big changes in our everyday life. Pushed out of our comfort zone, how will we cope?
Alongside an abundance of resignation and denial there is room for hope and resolution. A culture is made up of many individuals. We can share our inspiration. Humans are moved by communication, even the subtle subliminal signals that a kind heart naturally propagates, as the philosopher Alexandre Jollien calls it, the “karuna-virus” (“compassion virus”).
The attitude of universal compassion that the world needs also corresponds to our needs as individuals.
All forms of life depend on each other and on their environment, and human beings are not exempt from this need to live together. To imagine that each one would be an isolated entity, capable of building its happiness in its own egocentric bubble is, by nature, dysfunctional and can only lead to permanent dissatisfaction. Our joys and sorrows exist only with others and through others. Would love make sense if we were suspended alone in space?
Research in positive psychology shows that kindness, which we should place at the heart of living together, is the most fruitful mental state, which brings joy, contentment, enthusiasm and gratitude in its wake. It honors our common humanity and our closeness to the animals who are our fellow citizens in this world.
Each in our own way we can try to push in the right direction, but the starting point has to be working with our own mind. Developing a mind that is stable and clear, that does not panic, and has the intelligence of a broad caring attitude, is the essential ingredient for us to deal with our times and our future. It is our gift to ourselves, our families and the world.
The discovery of the resources of our own mind is something that everyone needs to learn, and which ideally should find its place not only at the individual level but also in institutions. Matthieu Ricard again:
Schools, companies, hospitals, and government departments, would have everything to gain by introducing training in "caring mindfulness" into their activities: better human relationships, increased confidence, a reduction in burn-out, and consequently greater satisfaction for everyone.
Matthieu Ricard and the authors and creators of Imagine Clarity are committed to making not just mindfulness, but caring mindfulness, a possible choice for anyone who wishes to make it a reality in their lives. We feel that our approach will enable individuals in all circumstances to develop the stability, compassion and resilience needed to deal wisely with the challenges of our times.
- Abiy Ahmed: If Covid-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all. FT March 25 2020.
- Yuval Noah Harari: The world after coronavirus. March 20 2020.
- Dalai Lama: Seven billion people 'need a sense of oneness'. BBC June 13 2020.
- Matthieu Ricard in a review of Ensemble by Sébastien Henry (in French). January 15 2020.
Photo: Matthieu Ricard.