A few weeks ago I went out for my daily walk on Thursday evening just before 8pm. I had forgotten that since the current lockdown in the UK, this is the time set aside for the weekly Clap for our Carers campaign. It’s a public event to show appreciation of all NHS and frontline staff. Many people come out of their houses, clap, bang saucepans and generally make a noise to show appreciation for those risking their lives, to say thank you to the thousands who continue to keep society moving. It only lasts a couple of minutes but its assumed the status of a national ritual with politicians, celebrities and other public figures all joining in with beaming smiles. As I carried on walking, a woman shouted ‘you should clap as you walk.’ Although she was smiling, her tone was terse and I admit I was quite taken aback. Clapping was not just a voluntary show of gratitude but a public duty now.
The UK has tragically one of the highest death rates from Covid 19 with over 30,000 who have lost their lives. The doctors and nurses working with patients are described as ‘NHS heroes.’ But while for many, the weekly applause may create a genuine sense of coming together in a time of crisis, I think as a society we struggle with how to understand human suffering, how to connect both the sense of loss and hope which together give weight and meaning to our lives.
Yet, it is precisely this weighing up of struggle, suffering and hope that produce the best narratives of human existence, often so poignantly reflected in literature, theology, philosophy and art. As far back as the mid twentieth century, a time which seem both distant and very present, the German philosopher and psychologist, Theodor W. Adorno maintained that a good, honest life is no longer possible, because we live in an inhuman society. The book’s epigram ‘Life does not live’, opens a series of reflections and aphorisms beginning with Adorno’s famous lines that what was once the true field of philosophy, ‘the teaching of the good life’ has now lapsed into an intellectual neglect. For Adorno, `what the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production.’
For many social and cultural theorists, the paradox of contemporary societies is that civilisation’s development, has not left us more fulfilled and this search for fulfilment is both what drives us and often defeats us. All earthly experience is partial and life’s gaping wounds, our personal losses cannot always be healed. Humankind is restless and as many of us seem to have lost our more traditional frames of reference, we find ourselves suspended between different types of doubts and uncertainties.
But this struggle is not new and not necessarily caused by the onset of modernity’s relatively greater focus on the material world. In the lives of many Muslim and Christian thinkers, we read of their struggle between their desire for earthly pleasures and the knowledge that it is these very desires which preclude us from a true knowledge of the divine; only this knowledge could give you inner peace. For the 11th century Muslim theologian al-Ghazali, the ` aim of moral discipline is to purify the heart from the rust of passion and resentment till, like a clear mirror, it reflects the light of God.’ Yet even if most believers never reach such heights, the moral life, a life of good deeds, is what draws to nearer to God. For 19th century poet Rainer Maria Rilke, God remains our ultimate search, the dark mystery of our lives and yet we speak of God without adequate deliberation as to what this means for us.
The current Covid 19 pandemic has created a global public health crisis but the sudden loss of so many lives has also heightened our sense of our own mortality. That we cannot control all that happens to us is suddenly quite an alarming fact; that we had grown to thinking long term about our hopes and ambitions, but must now take life a day at a time, is an unsettling reality. While many of us are struggling in minor ways, we all know someone who feels overwhelmed by all this.
Community and togetherness in separation is the narrative of the day. For now, most of us are less indifferent to the destiny of others, we are more empathetic towards those taking risks every day, and we remain grateful. But for how long will this renewed sense of community and generosity remain? Once this struggle has passed, maybe a gentler and kinder future for all could be based on nurturing gratitude as a way of life rather than expressing it as a momentary, albeit well intentioned thank you.