Humanity’s Great Hope in Times of Pain and Pestilence
Where to look when things feel dire
When my grandfather was a punky British 14-year-old in 1944, he would stand at his bedroom window watching the bombs fall on London from a (reasonable) distance while his mother and little sisters huddled beneath their kitchen table. When I talk to him on the rusty landline 70 years later and ask him what exactly he was thinking, he says, in his cheeky, now 90-year-old voice, that it was just very cool to look at.
Today in 2020, in the midst of a global health crisis that has us huddled in our living rooms and staring fearfully out the window, the same sense of an invisible, irrational and relentless enemy can be seen to be overwhelming many members of our global society. In the last few days, the combination of a lurking mutant virus, abhorrent police brutality and the simple and solitary fact that Donald Trump exists/has access to both twitter and the nuclear codes, has meant that current universal optimism is about as thin as a d-grade surgical mask.
It’s enough to make one feel a little panicked.
In this time of pain and pestilence, it has become increasingly appealing to buckle to the negative news overlords, pack up our few worldly possessions and make the executive decision to spend the remainder of our days growing micro herbs in an isolated Icelandic bunker.
As we tentatively perch on the ledge of an uncertain future, it is easy to lose sight of all that is good and hopeful in our world. However, when one looks closely, there is one quiet, yet steady truth that continues to shine through the mayhem, and it is humankind’s unique ability to adapt to pretty much anything.
In this fact alone, there is room for hope.
Homo sapiens are very good at surviving. Our penchant for hot gossip, murder and sex have meant the continuation of our species against all the odds. Modern homo erectus emerged 150,000 years ago in the rich fertile soil of The Great Rift Valley and made their cheerful way out into the Middle East and Europe wherein they co-existed with Neanderthals until they either bred or killed them into extinction. The details are a bit hazy, but I’d prefer to see our personal flavour of humanoid as lovers rather than fighters. It’s less mainstream.
Since those good ol’ days, homo sapiens have taken over the planet. Today, our world is the buzzing by-product of countless millennia of revolutions, famines, ruthless gods and billions of individual loves and sorrows, all cumulating in the intricate web of power, politics and currency that we inhabit today.
It’s veritably mind-boggling when you look at it up close.
According to an article released in 2013 by The Scientific American, the modern human brain is a product of our evolution over the past several thousand years, with our continued survival hinged on our ability to adapt to basically anything.
Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins program at the Smithsonian Institution of Natural History is quoted saying that “our brains are essentially social brains”, with our ability to share information and knowledge with one another the key to which humans are able to “adjust to new situations”.
“In the modern era”, Potts said, “we know that in the human genome there are all kinds of interactions that allow human organisms to have plasticity – the capacity to adjust itself is an evolved characteristic.”
Since the beginning of time, homo sapiens have created rather than just simply survived. Despite the unquestionable plethora of issues that humanity has, our capacity for love, discovery and beauty are things that should not be forgotten, with them ultimately allowing us to persist positively as a species.
Over the last bleak few months, there have been continuous displays of humanity’s innovative ability to find hope, art and joy even in the darkest of times.
In the recent past of the pandemic, the ability of humankind to do good has been resounding and astonishing. In my own little corner of Sydney, people were reaching out to their elderly neighbours and giving away extravagant roast dinners to strangers. In New York and London, there was a viral neighbourhood romance and a series of giant metropolis’ collectively clapping on the hour for the selflessness and courage of their healthcare workers. In Iran, where public dancing is banned, there were bands of medical professionals jigging down overcrowded hospital corridors in the hopes of raising morale. Across Europe, people sung, played brass instruments and danced with one another whilst trapped in their apartment blocks.
Humans can get used to anything.
When travelling alone in a distant and lonely land, whether that be a particularly difficult emotional landscape or a wild Pakistani mountain range, this sense of ‘getting used to it’ is something that many people can understand. It takes only a few days before even the most bizarre occurrences can begin to feel commonplace.
For my grandfather in the Blitz, the German doodlebugs flying overhead were definitely scary, but ultimately mesmerising. Seeing much of London reduced to ash and rubble was hard to look at, but with time, the bombed-out ruins faded into the background of a still working city that he walked through every day. He was young, and his life continued on.
Now, in June of 2020 as many of us struggle to adjust to a chaotic new reality, there are still things happening beneath the mayhem that indicate a better and brighter time ahead.
Elon Musk wants to film a movie with Tom Cruise in space, a renegade Aussie diver singlehandedly freed a baby humpback whale from shark nets, and the ozone hole above the Arctic has closed up. The air is purer than it has been in years and carbon emissions have plummeted worldwide.
In the wake of George Floyd’s senseless and tragic death, there has been a universal and explosive ignition of the conversation around systematic racism and every individual’s innate responsibility to fight for and safeguard peace, freedom and equality. In a huge and concrete win for the BLM movement, the Minneapolis police department has become the subject of a state-led civil rights investigation, with the city also committing to disband its police force in favour of a new community-based model that will work in tandem with a series of well-funded social services intended to address issues before they accelerate into crimes.
People everywhere are creating art, calling for justice, and generally making enough hand-crafted sourdough to feed a small Roman legion.
The world feels like it’s waking up, and as such – all is not lost.
Despite this being undoubtedly a trying time for all of us, there is a kind of beauty in our collective unity in the throes of this crisis. In terms of both the ongoing pandemic and BLM movement, it is clear that together we are all fundamentally part of the problem, yet also correspondingly, of the solution. The internet has been useful in this regard, with it proving time and time again the interconnectedness of humankind and the ability of us to traverse crisis through humour, courage and a collective commitment to peace.
On one fine October evening in 1939, C.S Lewis addressed a bunch of anxious Oxford University students as England sat in the early days of the war.
What he said to them then is just as relevant as it is for us today.
“Do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking that your predicament more abnormal than it really is. The best defence is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarrelling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs… Favourable conditions never come. There are, of course, moments when the pressure of the excitement is so great that only superhuman self-control could resist it. They come in both war and peace. We must do the best we can.”
C.S. Lewis knew what was up. The human condition is a flawed, intense and magnificent thing that has the capacity for great evil, and yet also great good. In moments of serious global crisis that are unfamiliar to most of us who are alive today, it is important to remember that nothing lasts forever. Just like it always has, this too shall pass and our lives will continue on. We have to be kind, compassionate and look after our planet and one another in whatever way we can.
After all, in each of us lies humanity’s great hope.
It’s up to us whether we want to see it.