The experience that monumental and incredible events leave a clear mark on our memory of the exact time when they happened may be explained by the strong emotions which are sparked by these events: They help tie what has happened to a particular moment in time.
Most people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on 9/11, and for those, who were in New York that fateful morning, the immense impact of the two planes crashing into and taking down the Twin Towers must have struck them like a double lightning burning itself into their memory.
The present COVID-19 pandemic is of a completely different nature. Even if there were an official first day of the outbreak, nobody seems to remember what they were in the middle of doing, when it was reported that a new virus in humans had been detected in China.
Infectious diseases are caused by invisible microbes which often do not attract our attention immediately, and so they have, in this respect, nothing in common with the natural or man-made disasters, whose spectacularly sinister effects make themselves felt instantaneously.
As the new virus, SARS-CoV-2, has kept spreading across the world, its virulent way of moving through space and time has become apparent. Not only does it travel around the world at the same speed as globalization, it seems to have been around longer than first expected, as we find potentially infected people in Asia and Europe already in autumn 2019.
Perhaps it is because the effect of COVID-19 spreads out over time and engulfs the surface of the Earth that its impact is less memorable than other incredible and more immediate events. Or is it because microbes, regardless of the havoc they may create and the tremendous ramifications they may have, are so tiny and often go unnoticed that we tend to forget about them?
In her recent monograph on the 1918 “Spanish” flu, Laura Spinney expresses how astounded she still is by the fact that almost nobody seems to remember “the biggest disaster in the twentieth century” despite causing more deaths than the First and the Second World War. The 1918 flu pandemic was, according to her and other historians’ estimations, “the greatest tidal wave of death since the Black Death, perhaps in the whole of human history. (Spinney 2017, 4)”
Will the same thing happen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has not been nearly as lethal as the “Spanish” flu? Will we go back to do business as usual once it recedes, as if nothing has happened? For whatever reason, epidemics and pandemics do not appear to arouse the sort of strong emotions which catastrophic events call forth in most people.
Yet, after several waves of the new viral disease has overflown us, does it still not make a difference? The second wave of the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic was devastating, and a hundred years later Spain was once again among the first to suffer a second wave of the COVID pandemic. But despite being the most lethal event in modern times, the 1918 pandemic almost did not make it into the books, in which history is written. It was remembered in bits and pieces by private people and families, who could tell their descendants and friends unbelievable stories of human suffering.
Even if COVID-19 proves to be considerably less lethal, it has already had a more disastrous effect on societies around the world than the pandemic in 1918. Economies and international relations have come to a standstill, leading to a downward spiral of lost jobs and closed companies.
The question is: What more do we need in order to take seriously and keep in mind the devastation caused by the pandemic? Photos? Maybe it’s that simple. A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes. Another simple thing, which most of us need, is to become more aware of what is happening to us and around us.
More and more people have become like sleepwalkers, who barely have time and energy to pay attention to anything else than their most immediate needs and desires, be that the obligations at work or what appears on their smartphone or television screens. It is worrying that we need big scale disasters to remind us where we were at a given time.
Let it not be true for all of us what happens to many people at the end of their lives: Life passed by, but I was not there to experience it. Being present is the precondition for realizing what is going on inside us and around us. We do not need to look at our clock or our smartphone to see when and where something is going down.
It is happening right now, every second of our lives, and we may just be in time to perceive the next extraordinary event in its making. What, when and where is it about to take place?
Things you just can’t do
You can’t handle the truth
Those, who have watched the movie A Few Good Men (1992), can probably still hear these words, pronounced by Coronel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), ringing in their ears. In one of the final scenes, the young lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) puts pressure on the coronel to find out, if he is behind the death of a marine, who was to be transferred away from Guantanamo Bay. The coronel feels the pressure and yells at the lawyer, while the heat starts to rise in the courtroom: “You can’t handle the truth!”
Neither can the coronel, although he thinks he can. Yet, he ends up revealing what the lawyer suspected, but could not prove without the help of the coronel, who seems to be unaware of the consequences of his confession. And so it is: Nobody can handle the moment of truth which does not fit into the human hand; not the coronel, not the lawyer, not any being can handle the moment of truth on this time-ridden earth, where “yesterday’s just a memory, and tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be”.
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way
The perfect repetition, which would return you to the very moment, where you started, is not realizable. The ancient Greek natural philosopher, Alcmaeon, said it in the following way: “Men perish, because they are unable to connect the beginning to the end.” Bob Dylan put it in his own frank manner on Mississippi, where we all walk the line, “your days are numbered, so are mine”: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way”.
I remember when Michael Jordan came back. Well, he actually came back twice, and each time he had to struggle a bit more to maintain his level, until even he, Air Jordan, could not keep up physically, but animically he stayed strong. And that may just be the trick: accepting that we cannot come back all the way physically, yet, on a spiritual level it is not at all about coming or going back, but moving forward, taking what and where we have been onto new levels of consciousness and so outgrowing what we were. Don’t think twice, just do it.
You Can Never Hold Back Spring
Springtime is growth, spontaneous and ever expanding, like plants and cells which find their way, even when they are being suppressed or tied down. A tree sends its roots deep into the earth and stretches its branches toward the sky. On You Can Never Hold Back Spring Tom Waits sings, “the blushing rose will climb, spring ahead or fall behind”.
There is so much we humans can do, but that we cannot: hold back spring. Maybe we will once try to stop spring from blooming in our foolish attempt to control almost everything on earth, or maybe we have come to realize that it’s good that there is something in this world which is beyond our control. Such a world would look like the one Tom Waits reveals: “Even though you’ve lost your way, the world keeps dreaming of spring”.