Grief-and Hope-in the Time of Coronavirus
As I write these words, the sky outside the window is overcast. It looks bitter and hard like concrete. The empty, quiet roads, the closed shutters, and drawn curtains of houses all exude an air of defeat. Even the birds are unusually quiet today. To live in Italy at this very moment is to live the end of times. I mean the end of times not as a biblical prophecy (although one could argue for it) but as a defenseless experience of human vulnerability and frailty.
The coronavirus tempest, which has been raging for months, and a nationwide state of emergency in Italy, the second-most afflicted country in the world, have shattered our imagined human invincibility and superiority. All our deeply held securities—jobs, possessions, health, time, money, ambition—have been exposed as meek, mocked by a pandemic that eludes our control. Italy, a first-world country, has confessed that it has run out of hospital amenities and personnel to manage the augmenting afflicted. We are locked in our houses for God knows how long. Every shop except for supermarkets and pharmacies (under curfew) is closed. There is only the disheartening throttle of police and ambulance sirens here and there. The death song sounds like this.
What do we make of this time at home as we watch the tempest by the window amuse itself with our fear and distress? I say grieve. Yes, grieve, not despair.
To grieve is to engage in a heartbreaking survey of how we live our lives, to grieve is to embody the inescapable possibility of our end by acknowledging our vulnerability and frailty. Grief demands us to look hard at the face of troubling questions, which we, during our languishing civilized times, cleverly avoid. Now is the time—for there is no other time than now—to gift ourselves the questions.
I imagine with a feeling of disappointment and trepidation that, if millions of people and nations, were wiped out by the pandemic, how fortunate it would be for other species of this suffering planet. Wild plants and animals would thrive, extinct species would recuperate, forests and mountains would flourish, rivers, streams, and seas would heal themselves, the sky would clear itself of so much carbon dioxide, dying ecosystems would prosper. Yes, if I or someone else died, something much more precious and essential in this world would be saved. Grieve.
Such vision compels one to rethink, to reconsider, to re-imagine how one lives one’s life with the world around us. Clinging to one’s life is no more life-affirming than losing it without a deep, grasping study of how one’s mode of being affects others. By others, I consider not only our fellow species but others as well: plants, animals, trees, mountains, sky, ecosystems, history, ancestors, and the unborn… without which our very existence would be impossible.
The blinding panic we have been thrown into let us finally slow down. Perhaps what we need in a time of rapid annihilation is an insurgency of slowness wherein we can have a careful inventory of our actions and intentions. In the culture of speed, of instant grace, of immediate gratification, there is only a blind rushing forward, unconcerned of consequences, disconnected from the past, devoid of intimate encounters. Speed is another word for thievery. It steals from us the wealth of moments, reflections, encounters, memories, and reciprocities. An insurgent of slowness is one who surrenders the dreams of the world for the gratitude of being in the present. Each step he takes is a generous expression of what he has received or not received. He stands on the ground.
In the coming weeks let us develop a (hopeful) presentiment of what this situation has given us as a society. Inside our homes protected from the lingering shadows of the plague, we have been reduced to clay again. With death hunting us just outside our doorstep, we are human again. We have been momentarily drained of human-centeredness; outside the center, we feel for a moment the space where we move; that we are not alone and isolated in that space, that our elbows in different circumstances brush against each other. There should be no I in these trying moments but a delicate, enduring we. And within this, we are an intricate web of our need for each other. In our needing, we are all equals. The pandemic has given us inclusion in exchange for our usual discrimination. Now, nobody gives a fuck what clothes you wear, how much money you have in the bank, what status you occupy in society. As the virus is devouring so many lives, this humbling chaos is an articulation of a life-chance. To blow up that chance is the opposite of love.
Grieve that you are alive and soon the dust will settle upon your face. Grieve that you may feel the roots of your love grow deep into fellowship with others, human and non-human. Go slow into your grieving that you may not miss a small act of mercy or gentleness from a passing bird, from an unmoving tree, from a wind caressing your face, from the whisper of your ancestors. Let the abundance of death inspire in us not only fear but a love for the mystery of life.
We, in our locked homes, let us not waste our time. Let us practice the architecture of stillness. Let us undo the imagined self-importance of our species. In stillness, let us search into ourselves the stardust that we share with the creation around us. We are not special. The creation is. If we will be saved, let our lives serve for something as we have been dutifully served. If this on-going pandemic is teaching us the urgency of our ending and if we gently triumph against this, then let a greater ending defeat us—the struggle against the very destruction we inflict on this marvelous creation. If we could embrace the measures with zeal, solidarity, and intimacy that defend us from this pandemic, can’t we take the precaution of living a mutually nourishing life with the natural world with the same zeal, solidarity, and intimacy?
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. He also writes for a local academic magazine in Tuscany that is published twice a year. His articles have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Visit his website or follow him on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana.