Published in Hermes Magazine.
“May you live in interesting times,” we sometimes say. The ordinary use of this phrase may strike us as somewhat cavalier today, however, given the critical scenario that the pandemic has constellated around people over the whole globe. Despite the obvious threat and inconvenience that the pandemic had posed and will likely continue to do, we are not given to change what is already a fact. We may, however, allow what is already fact to evolve in a positive direction by responding to it in the most sensible and virtuous way that we are fit. The crucible is the place of transformation, but nothing can escape the flames.
Transformation implies the sacrifice of the old form for the sake of the new, and fire is the agent of this change. Similarly, any evolution that the present crisis manages to impel will arise from the ashes of what was before. It is senseless to imagine that the structures of the world could change without having been preceded by a change in the thinking that conceives and propagates those structures. For this reason, I would like to focus on one respect in which we might harness the fire of the present crisis to transform these conceptions. Put another way, I hope the short reflection to follow can encourage us to wrestle with this pandemic, and not let it go until it has blessed us with new understanding.
A hallmark of the last century has been that globalisation has outstripped our collective ability to comprehend it. Flat-Earth conspiracists are easily derided in the name of intelligence, science, and cosmopolitanism etc. But the Flat-Earth conspiracists are actually less hypocritical than many of us who scoff at them. This is because the belief that they profess is not out of joint with the implicit conceptions by which they live their lives. Only the rare and exceptional individual lives with the continual and unremitting consciousness of his humanity. I certainly don’t, and I must instead rely on occasional and fleeting insights into this global consciousness, when the angel shakes me, and I awaken just long enough to notice my usual sleep. Most of the time, I stumble about in the dream that I will reap something other than what I sow, and that what I send off in one direction will not return from the other one. To comprehend what is already fact means understanding that one person’s problem is every person’s problem; that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
We are confronted by a striking intricacy of paradox in the pandemic phenomenon. The pandemic could never have materialised except by the global commerce, transit, and transportation that connects the entire Earth in what is now revealed to be a latticework of transmission-channels for COVID-19. A response to the pandemic has been the impulse towards physical isolation in an attempt to sever some of these channels. To some degree, this “social-distancing” has had the paradoxical effect that we have drawn inwardly closer. When I see my brother, he stands opposite to me, and in contradistinction to me as well as to everything else that is not him. But when I do not see him, then he does not stand opposite to me. Instead, I must summon his image from within myself. The consequence is that the oppositions lose their application and the strict distinctions lose their purchase. In some way, we see the least in people who are before us because we are always seeing darkly through the glass of opposition. To reiterate the statement at the beginning of this paragraph, globalism may not have created the COVID-19 virus, but it did create the pandemic of infection from it. But it was a mindless globalism; a utilitarian globalism devoid of the consciousness to accompany it. This same blindness has rendered all but useless any initiatives to undertake coherent responses to the elephants on the planet. This goes beyond the poaching of, and habit loss for pachyderms, because as a figure of speech, we have largely found ourselves incapable of coherent response to all of the crises that demand a comprehensive, planetary, and integral perspective to be understood. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
The pandemic phenomenon has the potential to enkindle an awakening and a solidarity with our brothers and sisters, and amongst all Creation. Its very catastrophe has the power to transform us and I hope this short reflection has not diminished from this prospect. If we do not allow this power to go to waste—if we do not squander it by seeking clever ways to perpetuate the old models—then years from now, we may be able to reflect on the crisis of 2020 as the moment of renewal, and say, in the spirit of Augustine: “O, felix pestilentia!”