Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining, but it’s a bit hard to see the silver glinting through this Covid-shaped cloud just now, especially for the families most closely and sadly affected by this horrible situation.
But the silver is there all the same. I am so impressed at the leadership that is being shown here in Ireland by the Government, health professionals, civil servants; and the response by communities to that leadership has been equally uplifting to see. From doctors and nurses coming out of retirement and home from abroad to help out; to our Taoiseach making the kind of honest and yet encouraging speech that senior world leaders might learn from; to creative alternative celebrations of our national holiday; to people working around the clock to make sure out-of-work people and people sick or in quarantine get their emergency payments as quickly as possible; to organisations and individuals making material available online at little or no cost so that others can join in with dance or meditation or music; to imaginative moves by government departments to respond to people’s needs; to active, healthy people making sure their older or infirm neighbours can get supplies.
What this experience teaches us is that as humans, we can only survive in interdependence
Even on the street, as people give each other a wide berth, there are more smiles and nods and waves than usual. We are all in this together – and, what is more important, we have recognised that we are all in this together. We are re-evaluating what is important to us, what it is that we hold dear, what makes us who we are, and we are acknowledging and cherishing those values.
If this vile virus can do any good at all, maybe it is this: that it will teach us to recognise our fragility. We think we own the Earth; we certainly think we can dominate it. It is salutary to discover that our dominance is based on a very wobbly foundation and that we can only hope to co-exist, carefully and thoughtfully, on this Earth, with our fellow-humans and our fellow-creatures, respecting and managing our environment and its ecosystems.
What this experience teaches us is that as humans, we can only survive in interdependence. The borders and divisions we have constructed to mark out our own territories, what we own, what we defend, are blown wide open by an experience like this – even as we seek to mend the problem by closing those very borders.
Physical borders – between countries, across regions, within neighbourhoods, between individuals, sometimes even between individuals living in the same house – need to be carefully maintained, of course, to defeat contagion. But even as we shore ourselves up against the onslaught, we come to know what we are losing when we close our front doors and cut ourselves off from our friends. We are losing what it is that makes us human and gives our lives meaning: interaction, collaboration, contact, touch.
It is striking how quick human beings are to find ways to re-establish our connections, forging contactless contact. Scenes of Italians serenading each other and their communities from their windows and balconies are moving and cheering in the face of morgues and cemeteries and crematoriums that can’t cope with the numbers of dead. Our need to communicate and our need for camaraderie go very deep.
That is perhaps the one gift this virus brings us: a deeper and more reflective self-knowledge, recognition of ourselves not as millions of individuals operating separately, but as members of families and communities, networks and connected groups, whose task it is now more than ever to collaborate, even if from a distance, to maintain contact without making physical contact, to reach out without touching.
Such self-recognition must surely lead us to recognise also what it is that keeps us asunder: the struggle for dominance, the scrabbling for wealth and status, the sense of ourselves as worthier, more special, more deserving than others, especially others who are poor, homeless, displaced, disabled, sick, different.
Think of what it would mean to our approach to the environment and to climate change
When we come to see ourselves as responsible members of the human race, that changes everything – the way we live, the way we think, the way we structure our society. Imagine the difference that would make in our attitudes to immigrants and to the hundreds of thousands of people without a homeland, roaming the world, seeking refuge and a home. Think of what it would mean to our approach to the environment and to climate change. Think of how it could change our attitude to the distribution of the world’s resources.
Out of disaster and despair, good – even a little good – can emerge. As I write, the virus seems to be in retreat in Wuhan, where it all started, with no new cases reported – and now the people there can see the blue sky, which previously was shrouded in pollution. We have to hold on to hope if we are to survive, spiritually as well as physically.
Now is the time. It is our time to start thinking of what we can do collectively to save ourselves as human beings and to save the planet. To quote Goethe, “Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it; wholeness has genius, power and magic in it; begin now.”
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is founder and life president of Focus Ireland