Notes from the digital town square

Notes from the digital town square

Inside Out

If our world had a town square, a middle-of-the-world chowk, it is the one place right now that would be fully packed, never mind all the warnings about social distancing. After all, when crises strike, human beings have a tendency to congregate and figure out what is happening and how to set things right. So, stuck as we are in front of our computer screens, our huddle seems to be happening in the digital square. And what are we discussing?

The predominant question that is emerging from all the anxious chatter going around is how to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible. People are worried about how to protect themselves and their loved ones from the impact of what is unravelling around us. And here, I’m not just talking about the dreaded coronavirus itself — though that is a big worry — but also the attendant business of uncertainty and change that it has brought with it.

What many seem to be experiencing, although few are perhaps saying it aloud right now — and I’m not talking of those who have actually lost family or friends to Covid-19 — is a sense that their lives have lost some or even a lot of meaning. If all it takes is a virus attack, even if the virus in question is dangerous and highly contagious, to turn everything upside down, upend age-old routines and ways of living, then what did it all mean? This is the question that is suspended in mid-air over the world’s digital town square now.

This turn of events has brought a fundamental truth into sharp relief: Our mortality, the fact of the fragility of our existence, is the one thing we all continuously turn away from or elide from our experience. This tendency is what makes it possible for us to carry on as though things will always remain the same. This is also what makes it possible for us not to question the set patterns through which we exist and operate. This illusion is shattered now. The pandemic, for all the havoc it is wreaking, has brought home Reality to us like nothing else.

If we are to be honest in these times, we must ask, of what value are all those actions and events that we consider important and worthy of throwing our life energies into when faced with the prospect of everything coming to an end. It's one of the most frightening but also the most clarifying experiences that can happen to individual human beings. And today, this is potentially a question for all of humanity. It is fascinating to wonder what this moment in our collective consciousness will throw up.

Will it change our relationship with each other, with other creatures and the world? Will we human beings be finally put in our place by these unexpected events?

The answer is, probably not. We will most likely emerge out of this in time to still destroy the planet, continue with condemning large swathes of our population to inhuman poverty, and carry on with our wars, both real and virtual as though nothing has changed. And maybe nothing would have really changed. But still, there will be those who will pause to question their actions and thoughts. We cannot possibly estimate what the caseload of those recalibrating will be, but surely there will be those who will wonder whether it makes sense for everything to go back to ‘normal’. This is the possibility that exists for each one of us today.

Question is — and I write this for myself as much as for you — are we going to gather the courage to meet the new as new, or will we choose to scroll further down the page like business as usual?

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