there is only room on your face for one oxygen mask

COVID-19 scares me.

Oh, I’m not afraid of getting it myself. I’m in my thirties, fit and healthy, with no underlying health conditions. If I succumb to the virus, I’m looking at a week or two of unpleasantness and a fun piece of history to share with my future kids (‘Mummy survived coronavirus!’).

What scares me is the side effects, because they seem brutal, and oddly enough, they don’t seem to be restricted to confirmed cases, either. COVID-19, it seems, has the power to bring out the absolute worst in people, holding up a mirror to show us the darkest, most inhuman(e) parts of our society. What scares me is the hell of a human psyche separated from its roots. (And yes, of course, there is great good happening too, and I will end on that.)

Let me share a quote from one of my very favourite novels, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

To be is to be perceived, and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other. The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our words and deeds, that go on and are pushing themselves throughout all time.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

And, just because I’m on the theme and will take every opportunity to share chunks of my absolutely favourite book of all time, Rock of Doubt/Dance in the Dark, by Sydney Carter:

Love your neighbour as yourself: for yourself is in your neighbour. You can only find it through your neighbour. Do not think about God, for the moment: think about your deepest self, the self that you can only find by being with somebody else. […]

Words collapse in face of this experience: all they can do is point towards it. Self and not-self intermingle all the time. You are your own neighbour, and your neighbour you. Love is where you feel, most sharply, the absurdity, the falsity of your position as a separated being. […]

The self is a paradox: you can only find it when you lose it. Which is what Jesus (very nearly) said. ‘You must lose your life to find it.’ What is your life, if not yourself? And where can you find it, except by the otherness of the neighbour or of God: except by that Otherness which you carry in yourself? What pronoun will you pin it down by: how are you to address this otherness? ‘I? You? He? She? It? We? They?’ You could make a case for any, or all of them. For, as the Vedas say, ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ — I am that. Grammar gives up. Language expires in the attempt to say it: and by its very death, does point at last to what it cannot say.

My spiritual beliefs are an entry for another day, but suffice to say that God, for me, is another word for the inherent goodness, love, creative force in all living beings, that which binds us to each other and stretches out into the world to bring light to dark places and rest to the weary. I worship this ‘God’ in the peaceful moments of my own life, in Quaker meetings, in orchestra rehearsals, in everyday conversations, in the classes I give, on busy train platforms, with my friends, father, husband, cat. If I pray, it is to that light in myself, gaining strength from its presence and through seeing it reflected in a world I have always believed, and still, will always, believe to be beautiful.

Fear is making that light hard to see right now.

When I see people panic-buying toilet roll and soap, pharmacists marking up their hand sanitiser to ridiculous prices, people racially abusing Chinese students for daring to wear face masks, even people thinking that it’s ‘no big deal’ because, hey, it’s just like a bad flu, right, you’re just paranoid, I see people forgetting the simple assertion that we’re all in this together. That’s all. You don’t need to make it ‘spiritual’, although I do, because I can’t think of anything much more ‘spiritual’ than that, and I grew up speaking the language of Christianity that makes me conceptualise things in such terms even after I left the Church.

Panic and fear is forcing us to forget the most vulnerable in our society. Panic and fear is forcing us to forget the Other. Panic and fear is forcing us to betray our very selves that are found in that Other. And of course this doesn’t just happen in a global pandemic, but this sudden, ever-evolving, headline-monopolising event sure does highlight it. We are losing our humanity over this, this and so much more, and for me personally, that is causing great pain.

Put on your oxygen mask before helping others. I’m all for that. That is not selfish; it is sensible, and practical, and human in the best possible sense of the word. But, as the title of this post suggests, hoarding all the oxygen masks on the plane is selfish.

But then… am I blaming the toilet-roll hoarders, the £25.99-per-hand-sanitiser pharmacists, the pasta-bulk-buyers? Not really – or at least, not the individuals. I am very much struggling with those pharmacists, if I’m honest. But we look in that COVID-19 mirror and it shows us a society which seems fit to break at the seams — a society that cannot love and cherish its most vulnerable, its poorest, its most in need, and by that token, a society that can scarcely call itself a society at all. (Qualifier: No, it’s not all bad.)

panic-buying-full
On Panic Buying, by Sam Wallman and Miroslav Sandev

I’m not into politics, or economic theory. I know who I vote for, and I vote in line with my values, but I don’t speak that language and don’t find it particularly important for me to learn right now. It might be an over-simplification to say, then, but I’ll say it anyway, however crude my words may be: the way political and economic systems are structured has encouraged us to be this way. This is no abdication of responsibility. This is not me throwing my hands up and saying, well, there’s nothing to be done, I’ve been programmed, oh well. This isn’t even me saying that capitalism as a concept is inherently wrong and evil (although the way it is enacted sure could use some work).

This is me gently suggesting that we could be better. If COVID-19 leaves one good thing behind it, it will be the wake-up call that we need a fairer, more compassionate, more equal, more kind society. I hope we heed it, but in the meantime, I’ll continue looking for the good…

…and many more.

Keep looking, friends. It’s still there.

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