Geetha Marcus

At dawn today, I woke to glorious sunrise streaming through my window and a chorus of birdsong. Sitting in my armchair with my one daily fix of double espresso, I watch and listen to blue tits, my garden full of bees and butterflies. No traffic. The street on which I live is adorned with this season’s apple and cherry blossoms. I can hear the wind.

Nature is beautiful, busy and brutal. She and all her creatures soldier on. The swans in the pond nearby are preparing nonchalantly for their offspring, hoping the neighbourhood foxes will be kept at bay. Today we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. In all her magnificence, Gaia, Mother Earth, does not care that thousands of people have perished, and many others are living in their own situated hell, wondering how they are going to emerge from this virus crisis, assuming they manage to dodge death’s scythe.

In several eastern theologies, the cycle of life and death is represented in not just the seasons, but in humanity. In Hinduism, for example, Brahma (God of Creation) is Spring, Vishnu (God of Preservation) is Summer and Autumn, and Shiva (God of Destruction) is Winter. Collectively they represent the three fundamental forces through which the universe is created, maintained, and destroyed in cyclic succession. I was brought up a Hindu and a Christian, and these traditions run parallel in my life to this day. Most Hindus will tell you that life is part of death, a cycle one goes through repeatedly, until you reach perfection (nirvana) and are released back to Brahma (The Creator). Hindus do not apologise when someone dies as there is nothing to articulate. I was 10 when I first encountered death. My Tata (grandfather) died, and as I sat at his feet alongside my cousins and aunts, holding a pot of burning incense, I noticed no one cried and no one spoke, there was no eulogy, until the silence was interrupted briefly by a shrivelled, bald Brahmin priest, chanting ancient Sanskrit prayers, wrapped in pure white muslin. Death is expected, accepted and respected as part of the life cycle both in nature and as we are part of nature, in us, as humans.

Yuval Noah Harari, philosopher and historian, explains that “for most of history, humans meekly submitted to death. For most of history the best human minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to defeat it. But the modern world has been shaped by the belief that humans can outsmart and defeat death”. Now we have an army of scientists, doctors, and politicians trying to win the battle against the coronavirus, whilst many perish daily, reduced to statistics.

As I reflect on the daily political briefings, the disruption, and watch how much of nature remains oblivious to our agony and tomfoolery, I am minded too of our hubris in thinking that we are somehow untouchable. That we have taken so much more than what we need from Nature in the Spring and Summer of our civilisations, that now it is time for our Winter, a destruction that we cannot stop with any great ease. The virus reminds us cruelly of our fragility. And as I count the silver linings of my own situation, encouraged to look on the bright side, I am ashamed that I am benefitting from it, as it affords me time to slow down, enjoy some peace, spend time with family. Yet I am mindful that this lockdown comes at tremendous cost to so many in my country, its harsh inequalities laid threadbare for all who care to weep. I have not been able to clap for the NHS. I want to clap their courage, but it feels misplaced to expect that kind of bravery from them. I wonder if this valour is part of the Hippocratic Oath, which I have never read nor paid much attention to until now. What would we do if they conscientiously objected to being “heroes” in the frontline? Would they be named, shamed, bullied and prosecuted? As we hold their feet to the sweet glory of their sacrifice, should we say…

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Owen, 1917)

Our wonderful NHS may not solve the riddle of life and death, of why some have fallen and some have not. They do not explain our existence for us. Yuval Harari rightly reminds us, however, that they might perhaps “buy us some more time to grapple with it. What we do with that time is up to us”. And Gaia, Mother Earth, goes on regardless.

 

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