In my over four and a half decades of existence on this beautiful and blessed planet, never have I experienced as much uncertainty around as during the COVID-19 era. Lock or unlock, mask or unmask, travel or not, shop or not, meet or not, greet or not, eat or not, share or not, have all become by-the-minute decisions. Over three months since the lockdown was first announced, I have been able to evolve a routine for myself and possibly have also facilitated others in structuring their time and reduce the impact of this pandemonic-shock on their lives.
Several times in the last few months, I have deliberated on what this time is for; I have also been reminded about what this time is not for.
What is this time for?
Look inward. We know, for sure, this is not the first such challenge that humanity has brought upon itself, and going by the going-ons at different levels of decision making across the globe, this will not be the last. This is the time for us to observe, reflect, contemplate and understand at the deepest level, what this pandemic is telling us. People and institutions may dismiss news (which has always been a ‘creation’ of people – virtuous and less so), blind themselves to scientific evidence, and shut out social media. What we cannot close ourselves to, is our selves. Whether in containment or quarantine, locked at home or spaced out in sparsely populated offices, we can go inside ourselves and identify what we have done, what we are doing, and what we plan to do, that has the potential to exacerbate suffering of individuals, teams, households, communities or humankind. And, then do ourselves a favour by striking it off from our list of Do’s. More than a mandate, it takes courage backed by conscience, to do so, on most occasions.
Be kind. There has been a mushrooming of initiatives, driven by young minds, first time do-gooders, as well as established social champions to bring succor to those the hardest hit by this pandemic (and various decisions around it). Support at least one of these causes passionately, and the virtue of empathy which we may have crumpled, pushed and hidden deep in our sub-conscious as part of our daily (and often) dehumanizing existence, will rise and shine again. Actually, we need not look far – our cook and substitute-cook, helper, cleaner, driver, ironing person, newspaper vendor, and nearly everyone working informally in (in)formal sector can definitely, in these times, benefit from our kindness – which is their right and our humanity. Let us care and dare open our heart once, and we will like to be that way, forever.
Find shared meaning. In these times, when information overload has turned into a perpetual noise, we are as confused as the next person. We cannot find meaning alone, and even if we do, it may not apply to or help everyone. There is a sense of bewilderment, emotional distress, future anxiety, and sometimes just a disbelieving blankness which even the seemingly strong and stable people are fighting, and sometimes, fighting alone. Have a conversation, including with random people, feel their feelings, expose your vulnerabilities and create a shared meaning of the times. Sometimes, this is all it takes to regain and spread sanity, to broadcast belief in blackboxed times like these.
Grow your Self. It sounds funny to my green-thumbed brother, that for the last two months I have been trying to grow coriander, experimenting with several batches of soil-water-sunlight-seed combination. Not having garnished my otherwise simple food with even a leaf of home-grown coriander so far, I still feel full with the journey – the effort, the expectations, the befuddlement, the analysis and the starting all over again. Never have I felt owning my time as much as now, and I have found myself resonating with Paul Graham’s ‘Life is Short’. It seems the time has expanded and am able to fill the day with a myriad set of activities which no longer seem antagonistic, but rather fit-in and synergize perfectly, magically enriching each other. So where did this ‘new time’ come from? And will it disappear once the unlock is complete and we are thrown back into the daily grind mill? I do not think so, because we would have replaced the pre-COVID grind-mill with a joy-mill, cultivating what James Clear calls ‘atomic habits’, during the forced lockdown.
What is this time not for?
No time for matching. Adam Grant ushered in the ‘Givers-Takers-Matchers’ concept into my understanding of the world and I cannot shrug it off my mind. I identified myself as a ‘matcher’ and started the conscious journey of sliding to the ‘giver’ side, one opportunity at a time. This happy meandering received a lightening jolt of COVID-19 and suddenly, all ‘matching’ appears ghoulish, selfish and inhuman. My coveted credo – Practise random kindness and senseless acts of beauty, came alive more than two decades after I first started brandishing it. I realized that as a human, you fall to the level of your matching, and this certainly is not the time to go tit-for-tat after people. If anything, we can raise ourselves to give more, do more, share more, in whatever we do.
Look beyond heads and numbers. This is becoming a season of job-cuts and pay-cuts, and one is knowingly or unknowingly drawn into taking decisions rationalized by the ‘organisation-first’ principle. When we engage a person to work with us, we are enlarging our kutumba. We are not adding an individual to the organisation’s muster roll; we are adding a family to our human network. Once we start looking at every hiring-firing decision in this manner, our perspective shifts and the otherwise seemingly well-reasoned and straightforward decisions become clouded. It is a good and timely cloud to have, seeded as it is with Ubuntu that washes all doubts away.
Do not judge. Karma follows everyone, and some of us found ourselves in a situation where we had (long) exhausted our credits before the pandemic struck. In a financially remunerative, work-life parlance, it meant that we were already lazing around on a performance plateau for some time, when the hideous overlap of financial year-end and pandemic calendar magnified the CTC of our position for our bottom-line conscious employers. In a non-work-life situation, even the generally well off amongst us have found ourselves with less than sufficient means (credibility or savings) to sail through the lockdown on our partial or no salaries, taking another hit on our quality of lives (if only, someone other than random researchers cared to ask). What I learnt is that this is not the time to judge and the least of all, to break into the I-said-so jingle, pushing people to death cafes. Dignity maintained is life-force sustained.
Leave the hoarding for ants and squirrels. I recall my first weekly shopping after lock-down-v1 was announced; it was a quiet adventure. I learnt to be satisfied (or felt fortunate to return home) with a kilo of white rice instead of the usual brown one, white sugar instead of jaggery powder, a local and novel brand of sanitizer, a few packets of noodles and papad, and three-four varieties of vegetables to last a week. Since work-from-home was in operation, stocking for a week was on my mind, but that was not so with some shoppers who wanted every pack of biscuit, every bottle of cooking oil, and all available moodhi (puffed rice) in the shop to be destined for their home sweet home. And then I saw ‘The Hand’ that descended to do justice – shopkeepers placing limits on how much / many a customer could buy. Neither wallet nor customer was the king of lockdown! Three months hence, the futility of mindless hoarding is clear to all. We suffered a shortage of sanitizers and now popular brands of antiseptic liquids are off the shelf. Masks continue to be overpriced and of dubious quality. But let us dismiss these as short-lived discomforts of the spoilt urbanites, as the real share of pain was borne by others. The already under-privileged faced acute shortage of cash and foodstuff and many other basic necessities that the resourceful mindlessly hoarded. Particularly unpardonable has been the throttling of empathy by the haves and its decay into self-pity, as exemplified by the overnight joblessness handed over to the (in)formally poor and the merciless evacuations from rented buildings, now the khandahars of humanity. We did cross-over to become another species in these dark times.
Do not feed the winds with caution. These are uncertain times and sometimes confusing too; we hear, “This is time for the bold to unlock new opportunities”, while others urge us to “Survive to be able to flourish another day”. In the wake of this pandemic, we have seen a surge of human emotions and humanity worldwide, which is not surprising but is certainly re-assuring. As much organized, State-sponsored humanitarian relief work is being done as the voluntary one (though the latter is largely un-tweeted and unsung in monetary melodies). And yet, we do not know for sure if the infections have braced the peak or community transmission has begun; is there going to be another wave later this year, or should we brace ourselves for the G4 or a climate catastrophe now? Howsoever we perceive the ‘next’ threat, we cannot afford to be careless (leave alone being super-negligent to host COVID parties), and this will be our service not just to ourselves but also to others we live, work, travel, and mingle with. As per The Bhagwad Gita, bhagyam or destiny is the fifth factor working behind anything that gets done (or sixth, if you follow Om Swami); there are four (or five, says Om) other factors we are very much in control of. So why be a callous wind-feeder? Not timid, but cautious. We do not know how the immediate future is going to pan out, where COVID-19 is concerned. It may be a long haul or may be, ‘vaccine-breaks’ will be applied on this global suffering soon. Whatever happens will be in the future. It is ‘this moment’ that matters in terms of both transformative learning and as the test of human character. Let us embrace this gift, and together ensure that everyone whose lives we touch is able to see these times as a challenge they will win, a tale they will spin further to narrate to their grandchildren, instead of carrying it as an epitaph on their restless graves.
Let us fare forward.