Pedaling Through a Pandemic

Dread, hopelessness, and failure surrounds you and everything just ceases to make sense. What can be done now? The outward circumstances are by and large outside your control, but it seems impossible to not get affected by it. The fear and negativity lingering around starts to enter your soul, making room for ghosts and phantoms of stress and anxiety. These are phantoms as they are imaginations and anticipation of dreadful experiences which you are yet to witness because the world is going through seemingly worse now. How much truth is there? A little. Whereas it is not advisable to stay delusional in a happy make-believe bubble, it is also not necessary to single-handedly bear the burden of problems of the world. We are responsible for what we do as individuals, citizens, moral agents, and climate warriors, still we have little part to play in the overall unfolding of universal events. Our involvement is in the ‘work’ we do, the ‘roles’ we play but not necessarily in the results it will yield. There are far too many factors deciding the course of universe. Therefore, it is wise to concentrate on things within our control and leave the rest to fate. In doing our bit, the very first challenge we face is – how to have a positive approach towards anything? How to hope for a better tomorrow? And how to pedal through this pandemic?

In the middle of a rampant pandemic where optimism looks dismal and the future lurks in shadows, is there still a promise of a better tomorrow? To find an answer, let us go back in time, to ancient Rome between 165-180 AD, when the deadly pandemic ‘Antonine Plague’ erupted resulting in a death toll of approximately 5 million. During that time, the Roman Empire was reigned by the famous stoic philosopher- Marcus Aurelius. His work Meditations which was written at the time of the pandemic, carries an unfailing optimism in human capacities but with a realistic lens of our defined incapacities. It engages with the theme of death, but it does so, meaningfully. Stoicism is a strand of thought which has ever stressed on the importance of focusing on ‘the things in our control’ instead of worrying over ‘the things not in our control’ like death itself.

Aurelius’ belief on the ceaseless human spirit and his continuous effort to remind his subjects of upholding ‘courage’ and ‘integrity’ even in the time of crisis, is what makes him an earnest leader. But above all, his realism in the face of death is what makes him perceptible. Aurelius argued that one must accept the reality of death, which is an ever-present possibility, but should not let the fear of it, cloud one’s conduct and character. All in all, one must be in the present, doing what one is supposed to do, one’s duty. Hence, to ponder upon the possibility of a better tomorrow is not our job. What we must focus is on the present where there is still hope for as long as one is alive and breathing. Fear is the ornament of the weak, Aurelius would say. It is fear which pulls us back every time we want to move forward in life. It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live, he says in Meditations. Thus, it is pointless to die every day, thinking of the horrors that future might have in store for us. Aurelius argues that events external to us are not within our power, but the worry it causes, is decided upon by our estimate of it. Therefore, we should not let it cause pain or distress our state of mind.

Meditations is testament as to how one can remain honourable not just in life but also in one’s death. It has the wisdom of accepting the course of nature and the purpose of universe altogether. Just as life, death is another reality and to devote one’s time fearfully so, in its anticipation, is foolish. Another aspect explicably discussed in Meditations, is the worth of human conduct and human character at the time of crisis such as a pandemic. It is common knowledge that true nature of man is exposed at such difficult situations, when one is faced with difficult choices. Aurelius reminds us of holding onto human integrity in the face of adversity. Under no circumstance, should human give in to feelings of apathy or pretence. The emperor believed in maintaining one’s equanimity and harmony in what one inherits and endorses. Today, our country is facing a health emergency in terms of COVID-19 and is in desperate dearth of resources. Often, in the race of survival, virtue takes a back seat and people tend to lose their moral standing. Human turns against human in the face of selfish interest and the society often turns its back on the weak. Aurelius stressed upon the importance of virtues like courage and justice, at the same time maintaining so, simply as a man and not for pride or fame; is the indication of having an equanimous character.

One might argue what practicality does virtue and value hold in a real stumbling situation such as a crisis. A good character is what defines the right approach in life and takes the society forward in a beneficial direction. The importance of words like courage, integrity, equanimity which Aurelius stressed on time and again, is understood at a time when one is in substantial lack of such values. For a society to sustain or rather flourish, one requires these values which uphold the unity and harmonise the human connection. One cannot imagine to be secure in an environment which is rampant with lies, deceit, and burning insecurities. Especially when our existence and sustenance is linked with each other. Also, do not forget that human beings are a part of a larger ecological system which would simply collapse if its components do not look after one another. Therefore, a living where individuals hold confidence in the common good and work incessantly for its attainment, can provide us true purpose. Values offer people with hope for a better self and a better future. In a crisis such as a pandemic, where it is tempting to stay absolutely selfish and self-centred, Aurelius teaches us that we must take it upon ourselves as our duty to help mankind. In the darkest of times, we must not compromise with our humanity. Because even if we get past all the troubles and hurdles, life will not be worth living without our values that give meaning to it.

It is essential now to ponder whether these ideals actually work in life and for that we just need to observe. The example of our own country is a display of the utter horror and danger coronavirus has caused in our lives. With cases mounting up everyday in the deadly second wave and crematoriums lit with continuous burning pyre, hope seems a distant dream. It is not of much use now, to talk about the health management failures or callous attitude of the people towards health guidelines. However, what is appreciable is the way many have responded to one another in this cry for help situation. Overlooking differences, people have joined hands and have stood tall for each other in this fight against COVID-19. What is worth noticing is the enduring human spirit present in each one of us at this hour of desperation. Strangers reaching out to help strangers with all that they can. Friends and family providing more love and support than ever, even from miles away. On social media, people are making themselves available for emotional, financial, and any other assistance. The commendable dedication and contribution of health care workers and providers in getting people through these exhausting times. All these are instances, where we as humans have come forward and have displayed our humanity. We acted as responsible and sensitive persons who chose empathy over apathy. And it came out of a genuine concern for fellow human being than out of pretence or for drawing any accolade. In this battle against the disease, fear stands as an obvious challenge for everyone. Yet, some people have dwarfed these fears with the might of their goodwill and care for the infected. It cannot be said whether we have won the battle or whether we will at last win it. But we have positively learnt how to fight it and for whom to fight. Thus, we have discovered a way of pedaling through this crisis; it is the only way – the human way.

-Tanya Yadav (Freelancer)

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