In the United States, from coast to coast, stretching all the way from Los Angeles, known as 72 suburbs in search of a city, to Washington, where even the homeless living within its 12 square miles think they’re important to the workings of the free world, cities are ending their mask mandates and returning to business as usual.
Yes, America is returning. With abandon. And letting its hair down. There’s talk of the 2020s replicating the Roaring Twenties, when flappers, those young women with bobbed hair and short skirts (described by Webster’s Dictionary at the time as “daring in conduct, speech and dress”) actually drank and smoked in public; F. Scott Fitzgerald-like characters patronised speakeasies, flouting Prohibition; and the Harlem Renaissance kicked off the Jazz Age and redefined American culture.
The dynamic that propels that kind of abandon is common among cultures everywhere that had lived through an extended period of collective trauma and unendurable suffering, a time when catastrophic circumstances had disrupted people’s access to their symbolic vehicles of meaning in quotidian life, to their long-held and comfortable manners of ceremonial exchange, and to the communal spaces in their urban habitat — in effect, to the tool box that cements their sense of shared reference as a collectivity. In short, it is a time for a choked psyche that had long gasped for air to let go.
Yet as Americans, along with those other “blessed ones” in the developed world, celebrate, we must remember that to countless people in the impoverished Global South, the pandemic remains a living hell. For these folks, sadly, there’s still a fair distance to travel and a lot more pain to bear before they reach the finish line.
This is as good a time as any to ask: Why? Why has coronavirus, a puny monster one thousandth the width of an eyelash — but a monster nevertheless, impregnated with the murderous caprice of the inhuman — been let loose on humanity? Why have those millions of souls that perished around the world during the pandemic had to perish?
Let’s do away with the answers given by ethicists, philosophers and mystics in their ponderous, arcane debates, shall we?
Look, if you have, as I do, an intellectual bent of mind imbued with the teleological spirit of history — having acquired your original leap to a maturing consciousness, as I did, in a part of the world where three Great Religions were born within close, organic proximity of each other — rather than with the Western empirical paradigm, where everything is to be defined, measured and proved, you would seek an answer in the Holy Texts, suffused as they are with ancient, universal and, above all, divine wisdom.
And these texts tell us that in all events that God causes to happen in our lives, including calamitous ones, such as plagues, famines, floods, earthquakes, fires and, yes, epidemics, He causes to happen not in order to show His displeasure at human folly, as superstition has it, but for a benign reason. Only over the sum of time do we realise that the ways of God to man are just. In fact, not only are they just, they are rational. After all, He is both beneficent and omniscient.
Consider this one case in point. To Europeans who in the 1340s lived through the horrors of the Black Death, the most devastating pandemic in human history, the ways of the Lord must have seemed wanton. But no, His intention, as Europeans were to have revealed to them, was to restore the soul of Europe to grace. As it so happened, in the wake of the plague, the lot of workers and peasants improved; feudalism, along with its attendant system of serfdom, was abolished; landownership became more equitable; relations between church and parishioner were reformed; and the Renaissance began to spread its wings throughout the continent, transforming not only the structure of its society but the texture of its cultural norms.
This seamless explanatory framework, derived from the teleological spirit of history, provides us, in my view, with a richer context in which to explain the human experience.
The coronavirus will, of course, have a different impact — different in kind as in degree — on our modern global village, but impact it will have.
Let’s face it, a return to the “old normal” is not on the cards and the “new normal” will for now remain veiled in mystery. The commonsensical solution to finding ourselves in this existential bog — a solution hiding in plain sight — is to just effortlessly, painlessly meld ourselves, emulating the style affected by Taoists, Sufis and Mystics, not to mention Kierkegaardian adherents, into what is being and becoming in our lives, leading us, at the end of the day, to what we want to be.
Sounds about right, no?
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile