Unprecedented. The coronavirus pandemic is often described as an unprecedented event. The word means “never done or known before.” Some aspects of COVID-19, like its global scale, likely are. Others are not. Although many choose to ignore the lessons of history, it offers much needed perspectives. As George Santana said 115 years ago, those who cannot remember their mistakes are condemned to repeat them. From Thucydides to Camus, there are reminders that the circumstances of the coronavirus may not be that unparalleled. Among the revelations is how humans respond so predictably to such crises: from the hoarding, panicking and blaming to the heroism, fixation with numbers and boredom of quarantine. Looking back, we rediscover commonalities – like the unpreparedness and prevarications of those in positions of trust. We may also develop a greater understanding of what might come next.
In writing about the plague in fifth-century Athens, Thucydides warned of the high mortality among front-line health care workers. Defoe’s account of the Black Plague offered prescient warnings about the danger of asymptomatic carriers, although that term was unknown at the time. While human behaviour is so dismayingly predictable, one thing that has changed for the better is that the practice of medicine has advanced and that remedies are likely forthcoming. If only some political leaders would listen to the science. The good news in these historical accounts is that pandemics ultimately end and the majority survive. The bad news is that we tend to forget or ignore the lessons of the past. There will always be events that some think are “unprecedented.” When we take things for granted, history generally repeats itself.
Courage. There are different kinds of courage. One is the ability to stand up for what we believe. Those with moral courage tend to annoy people, especially those in positions of power. Thinking creatively and independently, and openly espousing one’s convictions, goes considerably beyond acquiring the ideas of others, however useful that may be at times. It requires rigorous study and serious questioning of accepted principles of behaviour before reaching our own conclusions. It means challenging the prevailing prescriptions of presumed authorities in search of truth. When we are able to do this, we acquire the fortitude to advocate and live our principles, as contrarian or unpopular they may be.
I spent 18 years of my adult life in the company of a lot of highly educated people who didn’t know how to think for themselves. They could readily answer questions in their acknowledged fields of expertise because they were presumed to be bona fide experts. They just didn’t know how to ask them. They were certainly productive people who got things done but some of these initiatives weren’t actually worth doing. They were technocrats – trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing with little interest in anything beyond their circle of competence. They acquired conventional wisdom from others but were unable to think for themselves. This capability was never taught in school, although these oracles of knowledge had accumulated the requisite academic credentials to suggest otherwise.
Moral courage requires extreme contemplation, often in solitude, dissecting vexatious problems with patience, making mistakes, outlasting impulses and drawing novel connections. It demands that we confront and embrace the difficult or awkward questions being human throws at us. Like, am I doing the right thing? Do I believe what I was taught? What rules will I unequivocally abide by? When must I accept the responsibility of speaking truth to power? Without facing up to questions such as these with integrity, we cannot figure out why living courageously is living freely. Unless we deeply ponder life’s complexities and contradictions, and listen stoically to that quiet voice within, we cannot be courageous.
Intolerance. Most religions decry intolerance and profess the need for mutual understanding. Yet they are generally intolerant of the views of those who don’t adhere to their doctrine. These are called “non-believers.” This contradiction of fundamental beliefs is the foundation of intolerance. About 84% of the world’s population openly declare a chosen faith. The rest are either agnostics or atheists (agnostic means unknowing; atheist means disbelief or denial). There are around 10,000 different religions (including cults). The largest group is Christianity (32%) with 34,000 denominations, followed by Muslim (23%), Hinduism (15%), Buddhism (7%) and the rest, which include Judaism, Taoism, Sikhism and folk religions. There are approximately 1,000 distinct deities. So, when it comes to the need for greater tolerance, a seminal question may be this one: whose God is yours?
Our religious beliefs are little more than an accident of geography. Had we been born elsewhere, they might be different. If you were born in Canada, you are more likely to be a Christian. If you follow the Old Testament, your God is Yahweh, the God of Abraham. If you adhere to the precepts of the New Testament, it is Jesus. Were you born in India, you’re probably a Hindu (your God is Brahma). The Egyptian God is Osiris (who predates Jesus by 250 years). Neither Jews nor Muslims (whose God is Allah) accept Jesus as their saviour. The Mormons have Joseph Smith and the Scientologists have L. Ron Hubbard. Religious wars have been fought from time immemorial and these fundamental disagreements over differences in faith continue to this day, even within single theocratic doctrines. These fundamental splits within opposing sects of the same religions are bitterly contested. The examples abound. The dispute between Shia and Sunni Muslims on who is the legitimate heir to the Prophet Mohammad dates back 14 centuries and lives on, often with carnage. The violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddists in Myamar, which began with a sectarian response to a political disagreement, has been going on for 75 years with the death toll rising. The eight major sub-traditions or castes of Sikhism, which profess to hold similar canons of faith, have considerable differences in their values.
Truth matters. Some faiths are irreconcilable. It is central to Christianity that there is one God but pivotal to Hinduism that there are many. Reincarnation is essential to one and inconsistent with the other. Both can’t be true. Yet followers believe theirs is. Christians and Jews believe God created the world in six days. Hindus think differently. They say Lord Vishnu, lying on the serpent Shesha with a lotus growing from his navel, produced Brahma who then created the universe in a golden egg. Many say these are only myths but many also believe them to be literally true.We accept the ideas that are in currency where we live and we reject those that are foreign or alien to us. This goes beyond religious teaching; it includes our prevailing philosophies of living, what our peer groups embrace and what we think is in vogue at the moment. The “game of life” boils down to understanding, then resolving, the conflicts inherent in these contradictory belief systems. When disagreements arise, upon whom should the burden of proof fall – the believer or the non-believer?