NATURALLY, WE ARE responding to the horrors of statistics. Death feeds on its own multiplicity, and when the hunger peaks, it loses privacy and dignity. It gets rid of the philosopher’s veil and reveals itself not as the inevitable end of animation but as an inflicted terror. What we haven’t anticipated is unfolding before us: the slow collapse of life’s infrastructure that once reassured us about the worth of our journey so far. Suddenly, the plague’s worst stereotypes—a word that punishes the familiarity of reality—return from the wretched, distant past. Journalism of angst may say it is hell made to terrifying perfection by politics. We have been told, by people with no answers but armed with all the “pertinent” questions, that we are paying with our lives for the sins of others, that the only nobility we are allowed now is suffering. In the theology of blame, sorrow has been reduced to the size of the bogeyman in power. The priesthood of hate-thy-politician feels vindicated by headlines.
They all need to be blamed, the original deniers and debunkers, the gloaters and occasional gods. We also need to ask questions, for answers, not to play moral one-upmanship though. Some answers will never come, and the exigencies of both scientific and ideological establishments would see to that. Questions about the origin of the virus—from the wet market or a laboratory?—will not cross the Wall of China. Questions about the possibilities of a scientific accident are still relevant. Questions about the failures of leadership, ranging from initial casualness to sudden panic to premature victory speech to ultimate helplessness, too, should be asked, for answers, but not for satisfying the questioners’ urge to be vindicated in the sewage system of social media.
We are trapped in questions, and the muteness of those we thought possessed the answers prompt more questions, making us partially blind to the world out there. The story of suffering and bereavement is larger than the literature of blame. Grief is what unites us, currently fragmented and stationary in our isolated cells. In the textbook, stoics will tell you how to overcome it by the power of reason, and someone like Seneca has more in his wisdom to share. Or the Buddha makes suffering a state of being. Such variations of solace are inadequate when reality is overwhelming. When we open the window of our isolation, what we hear is not the consolations of philosophy but the sighs of loss and sorrow from the equally confined others. Well, we still hear the righteous fury of the harrumphers, but perhaps it is time we engaged with the fraternity of grief. It doesn’t mean that we ignore the anger and absolve the guilty; it just demands that we reject the absolutism of the brotherhood of blame.
It calls us back to the community, the essential unit of our civil life in which individual responsibility is the highest form of empathy. This sense of responsibility naturally minimises our rage because what matters more is not the power of a government but the generosity of the individual spirit. In the time of grief, our most private sense of loss can be gauged only by those who inhabit the same space of suffering—and share the same burden of surviving. After such knowledge, there can certainly be some comfort.
As the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, the apostle of communitarianism, has argued, being individual is not a rejection of the community. “An important facet of communities,” he writes, “is their ability to provide informal social controls that reinforce the moral commitments of their members, that is, they promote the common good. This helps to make for a largely voluntary social order. The most effective way to reinforce norms of behavior is to build on the fact that people have a strong need for continuous approval from others, especially from those with whom they have affective bonds of attachment, such as members of their community.” Forget the ‘ism’ spawned by Etzioni’s sociology, it is the approval of the empathetic others that communities offer, communities alone—and what governments don’t. It is that knowing approval that makes grief bearable.
Not the rage. The man-made failures of the system can still be corrected. And in a country of India’s size and social incohesion, of poverty and illiteracy, of political immorality, such failures make suffering too elemental to endure, and grief too isolated to concentrate our conscience. Still, does an obsession with the insensitivity of power, and the intoxication of rage, detach us from the basic obligations of the community? The thought may make grief in the time of a pandemic a less lonely affair. In religious morality, grief makes god intimate. In the morality of suffering, grief makes fellow humans gods.