When we see conflict, be it between countries, peoples, religions, organisations or families, we often call for ‘ekta’ or unity. At the moment it seems like all of the deep divisions amongst humanity have become erased and we have, ‘thanks’ to the Coronavirus, established a strange unity. All of a sudden, whatever continent or country of the world you live in, life has become remarkably similar. We are all now having to physically isolate ourselves to avoid catching and transmitting the virus.
And a significant proportion, perhaps as much as 10%, are fighting for and in many cases, losing their lives. According to New York Times, based on data produced by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, it is predicted that up to 1.7 million people could die in the US! Given that the US is the wealthiest and allegedly most advanced country in the world, one can only guess with horror what the levels of suffering will be in less developed countries, where even collecting data is almost impossible.
And of course with every tragic death, along with the victim, the suffering is extended to friends and family, who are not even able to perform proper funeral services for their departed loved ones. But the important thing is nobody is left untouched and in this sense we are all suffering.
SUFFERING AND GOD
The question for many and especially those who believe in a kind and loving God, is why do they allow so much suffering to take place? For some this many result in a loss of faith, whereas for others, it has the opposite effect; it all really depends on your perspective on life and God. For me Gurbani reveals an absolute truth, as Guru Nanak says “Suffering is the medicine, and pleasure the disease, because where there is pleasure, there is no desire for God.” (ਦੁਖੁ ਦਾਰੂ ਸੁਖੁ ਰੋਗੁ ਭਇਆ ਜਾ ਸੁਖੁ ਤਾਮਿ ਨ ਹੋਈ ॥) (Guru Granth Sahib P469).
Human suffering is as old as humanity, but for many of us growing up in safe and wealthy countries, such as the US and the UK, this is a new experience that we have never felt in our lives and it is difficult to understand why this is happening? It almost feels like being locked and isolated from others, especially our loved ones, is a divine message for us, or a sign that we as a human race need to reflect on the kinds of lives we have been living and the way we have been exploiting and destroying the natural world. Indeed, perhaps, the Coronavirus itself is a kind of medicine that will function as a mirror for us to understand what we have done to the planet so that we can change our behaviour before it is too late!
But still, there is a tricky question in my mind, which is, why should a loving God, even if this is to teach us something, use such horrible methods? And, given that they are least to blame for the condition of the planet, why should the poor suffer the most?
On the other hand, we are very good at finger pointing than looking at ourselves, our responsibility and our failure to understand. So perhaps as human beings, with the gift of intellect and self-reflection, really the issue is about our own ego and our failure to control ourselves and our desires than divine intervention. Perhaps, the truth is we have become selfish, greedy, self-centred people not bothered about how our desires and actions are destroying the Earth. If God is part of nature or ‘kudrat’, then perhaps we should not see them as a person but a gift, which we have failed to truly realise. Sadly we have even commercialised God through paying priests to perform ritual prayers to bring us good luck and good health.
We have become trapped in materialistic living to the extent that our minds are not focussed on the planet and its needs. For me, to live in harmony with nature is to serve God, but concentrating on ourselves and our desires, which will never be fulfilled is wrong. As Guru Nanak in Japji says, “The hunger of the hungry is not appeased, even by piling up loads of worldly goods” (BuiKAw BuK n auqrI jy bMnw purIAw Bwr). One of the effects of our ego centred consumer culture is that we only focus on the here and now! The future doesn’t matter because we are looking for instant satisfaction. We have become so blind, we can’t see the damage we are causing to the Earth and how our behaviour will impact future generations; our children and grandchildren!
So, now is the moment to stop and think. We are all in lockdown, so there is no excuse for not having the time to reflect on what changes we need to make. In doing so, maybe the starting point is to stop blaming others or even God, but to dig deep down in ourselves and consider the questions: What can I do today to change and to improve? After the virus has been controlled, what can I do to create a better world where caring not consuming is the most important value? How can I ensure that empathy and love, not hate and greed are the emotions that govern my actions? Though egotism is as old as humanity, our current generation appears become to have become so selfish that we have even ignored the very thing that sustains us, which is, as Guru Nanak says, ‘the air, water and soil; our mother Earth’!
REDISCOVER OLD WISDOM
In this regard, maybe we can learn from our parents and grandparents, who came from the villages in the Panjab with very little money but they understood the importance of nature and natural things. In those days, there was little packaged and fast food; we used to cook and eat together. We were a family unit working together, caring together and yes, fighting together! I am not suggesting we go back to extended families because there were many problems with these as well, but to think how we continue to work together, to know and serve each other.
I understand that things are different for us today because we have jobs often far away and our families are now scattered. That’s why new need to think differently about family and community, perhaps develop a new conception where the best aspects of village life can be established in our modern context. In making these changes, clearly there will be things we need to loose and also things we want to hold onto. There will be difficult choices, but, we have proved to ourselves that we can change our behaviours when we realise the need to do so. But the question remains, after the virus has gone away, will we simply go back to ‘normal’?
If we are to change, then we need to become less greedy. It is likely that the global economy will collapse and this will result in many more people living in poverty and uncertainty. No doubt we will all need to make changes, big and small. Some, especially if they have lost loved ones, or lost their job or even made homeless will have to make big adjustments. But those with power and wealth will too need to consider sharing this for a more equal society. But everybody can make small changes, like the saying goes, ‘every little counts’!
REDISCOVER INNER BEAUTY
One of the aspects of our current society is the obsession with our bodies, how we look, and how much time and money we spend on cosmetics. This must change! If we accept that God is beautiful, that God is part of nature (kudrat), that we are part of nature and that God resides in us all, then we have to come to realise we are all beautiful. Beauty is not about looking like those fake images in glossy magazines, which are designed to make us all feel bad about ourselves and to go out and buy cosmetics that we don’t really need.
Our obsession with ideal beauty results in self-hatred. If we have money we even try to change ourselves through plastic surgery. If we really think about it, all we are doing is trying to please others! In reality, we are concentrating too much on the surface level rather than deep or inner beauty, which doesn’t require expensive cosmetics or surgery. When we feel pain in ourselves this is projected on our bodies, but rather than addressing this we cause more pain to our bodies. Indeed, our desire for external beauty results in so much pain in ourselves that we don’t even realise it. The way to feel really beautiful is to stop obsessing with our bodies and to start working on inside ourselves. When we realise the divine beauty in ourselves, we also begin to see it in others. Beauty is also about realising were are all born with some gift that God has given us, and so we need to look down deep to find these gifts. I believe the Coronavirus is helping us to realise our common humanity, divinity and ultimately out true beauty.
STOP WASTEFUL CONSUMING
Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of Coronavirus is how it has disrupted our shopping and eating routine. But, if we think about it, much of what we consume is just junk! We buy and junk our clothes, and we buy junk food and pollute our bodies! But really, do we need to consume so much? Does it really make us happy, or simply addicts? If we value our bodies and health, then the key thing now is to focus on healthy eating and exercise. We don’t need to take out an expensive membership at a gym to do a workout. By being creative we can work out at home and we can go for a run, jog or a walk, even if it’s only in the garden or up and down the stairs. Actually, there are loads of different ways of keeping healthy and beautiful, both inside and outside, with no cost or less cost. We can cook food at home with less cost than ordering it from outside or going in restaurants all the time. Maybe sometimes we can give ourselves a treat and it’s nice to teach our children with cookery classes to cook at home; I think this if fun, educational and also strengthens family bonds.
INVESTING IN OUR FUTURE GENERATIONS
Our children are our future and what we do today will directly impact their lives. Until the Coronavirus came we were living very fast lives where we seemed to not have time for anybody. Indeed, we invented the term ‘spending quality time’ to discipline ourselves to protect what should have been routine. But now is the chance to stop the rat race and reorder our priorities. All time should be quality time, which means focussing on the things that really matter, and children really do matter. We need to rethink how can we spend more time with children as well as thinking what to do with them that will be most beneficial. For example, we can teach them how to cook, we can read to them, we can play with them and we can actively listen to them. For sure there are some benefits from connecting online, but if we don’t engage with children face-to-face, then they will grow-up with emotional illiteracy and become even more withdrawn and distant. Can you imagine a world where we only feel comfortable connecting online?
We need move away from old fashioned ways of thinking about children as needing to be disciplined. This kind of violent parenting has arguably contributed to the terrible mess we are in. We need to get into the child’s mind and see the world from their perspective. With the kinds of access children have to information today, our role is to be their best friend, to share our thoughts and emotions, to laugh and cry with them. Though we need to be good role models, we should not expect them to become mini version of us; we have to let them discover themselves. As the Lebanese-American writer, poet Kahlil Gibran, writes:
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”
Being locked down is/has not be a pleasant experience, but it has definitely been enlightening. The lockdown has led to may changes that often take years to achieve. And at the moment, we are all confused and our faith is certainly taking a hit. But the fog of confusion and fear will eventually lift and we will all be faced with the question, how can we be and do things differently? All of a sudden we have more time on our hands, we have less polluted streets, we have people caring and sharing and we have governments trying their best to help the people rather than to oppress them. Even warring factions seem to have put down their weapons, for now, anyway!
Whilst planning for a new future we can do some very practice things now. We can make ourselves a routine, perhaps have a chart for every day for seven days. We must avoid getting bored by doing the things we were always putting off. We need to get up early in the morning. We need to avoid oversleeping, overeating and watching too much TV. We need to make a routine for ourselves and our children otherwise we will start to drift get bored, and we all know where this can lead, to frustration, anger and depression!
And as we try to deal with our own family situation, we should not forget the poor people, who have no home, no food, no shelter, no change of clothes and no protection. As true Gursikhs, we need to become their brothers and sisters. And I am proud to say that thought the world we have seen Sikhs playing the role of Bhai Khanaya in providing water for the fallen and Mata Khivi and her loving langar.
For sure, like all other viruses, the Coronaviru will die out. But ego, hate and greed is a much more lethal virus which affects us all, and unless we can deal with this one, there surely can be no future for humanity. And given how we have destroyed nature, kudrat, or if you like God creation, then perhaps we don’t deserve to be on this planet; the really choice is ours!
Manjit Kaur, a UK-based therapist and counsellor, is also a co-host at the Akaal Channel. This column was adapted from her Facebook entry
The Divided Panth – some personal reflections. (Asia Samachar, 12 Feb 2020)
How to raise children? Some personal thoughts. (Asia Samachar, 23 Dec 2019)