This article was originally published in the Times of India
For the fifth time this year, the world is ending.
Week 1, 2020: embers were still cooling in the Amazon when, on the other side of our planet, flames engulfed Australia. The US assassinated an Iranian general, setting off anxieties about a new World War. Then: the global economy reeled from collapse, bloodshed tore through Delhi’s streets and now, while relief workers were still finding shelter for bereaved families, every news event sits overshadowed by a pandemic unfurling its death-cloud around our globe. Those of us who have homes are locked in them, glued to screens broadcasting the worst of it — suddenly out-of-work families walking for days toward the promise of shelter and safety and food and water, let down by the cities and leaders they hung their dreams on. One video shows a family sitting on the floor eating grass for a meal.
(Forgot to breathe? Same. Drop your shoulders, unclench your jaw. Follow an exhale out.)
Things are so bad, you want to hold your head in your hands but — cruel twist — you aren’t allowed. Touching your face is cancelled.
My phone tracks my screen-time and I’m averaging 7 hours a day. Tasked with sitting home, helpless against the pandemic, I’ve nonetheless read innumerable articles and WhatsApp forwards and tweets about it. (There’s new slang for this inability to look away from apocalyptic news-feeds: ’doomscrolling’.) I seem to know, without wanting to, what all the world leaders have said, what celebrities have said about the leaders, how journalists feel about the celebrities, and how my aunts feel about all of it. Stress is terrible for immunity; a fact that is extraordinarily stressful.
Other things happened this month, too — all the mundanities that make up a life. I woke up one morning with a bad crick in my neck. I paid taxes and cooked with my father. I picked a fight with someone important to me. I stayed up too late chatting with a boy I really, really like who lives stupidly far away. Ma put oil in my hair and we cut a cake for my Dadi’s 87th birthday. Her 2-year-old great-grandson, watching on FaceTime, opened his mouth wide for a bite and we laughed. It all felt very illicit. The world is ending. How can we flirt and fight and sing Happy Birthday?
But also: how can we not?
The most overwhelming fact I know is that humanity lives out its whole range of emotional possibility in each moment. As I write and again as you read, somebody is watching their child breathe their last while someone else, maybe even close by, is having a stoned silly giggle-fit. The worst things happening are never the only things happening but laughing fits and birthday cake won’t make it to headlines unless we somehow die from them.
Calamity, illness, death — these are our oldest companions. Much older than cooking, romance, headlines. And if being joyous while others suffer is unethical, then your every moment of contentment has been a breach — always, someone else has been in great pain. Only now, we know it.
We hold news of the greatest ongoing sufferings of the world in the palms of our hands all the time. We follow death toll updates from places we’ll never get to go, hooked to the blow-by-blows of tragedies we can do nothing about. This is new. It’s too much. It’s lunacy. But looking away would feel madder still.
(Relax the corners of your eyes and mouth.)
I worry some days that I’m numb to bad news. I also suspect numbness is a defence against full-blown screaming despair about a world splitting open so regularly that Normal swings wildly out of reach in a new direction every time I’ve begun to grasp its altered silhouette. I also know neither numbness nor ambiguous despair are of any use to anybody. As a friend chided: both are, ultimately, escapes.
We’re called on to do more than cycle through horror and forgetting. We’re called on to think clearly and help people. I’m not there yet. I’m in awe of the many people — the researchers, doctors, journalists — who have no choice but to be.
This is what it’s like, we’re all learning, to live through the writing of those grim sentences in history books — the sentences with death-tolls in them. You mourn in big ways, you ground yourself with little things. Everything about everything changes and, in defiance, you make your tea how you’ve always made your tea. You huddle in with the people you love, make sure everyone’s eating, then you all squint and try to piece together the new shape of Normal.
My parents and their friends now meet on group video-calls in the early evenings. They swap updates then they sing songs and play dumb charades. I find it so sweet and so funny. I almost forget it’s dystopian.
(Think about a kindness someone has done for you. Ok. Now one you could do.)
Calamity, illness, death — these are unavoidable fates, inevitable visitors, always in the neighbourhood, somehow still surprising when they come knock. All we want, I think, is to forget that they’re on their way. To run outside, revel, play. But we know too vividly that when suffering isn’t at our door, it’s breaking down someone else’s. I’m telling myself that being distressed by distressing days is only a symptom of sanity. I’m trying to nourish my capacities for generosity and moral clarity to keep up with times that promise to exact more and more of both.
In the meantime, I have little to offer you besides my notes to myself: Sit up straighter, exhale slowly, wash your hands. Meditate on uncertainty, history, care. Give easily, give often. Be patient with both bangs and whimpers.