Liberation from fear of death

Updated: Mar 30, 2020, 07:15 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

In the face of the seemingly apocalyptic Coronavirus, instead of just a fight-flight response, could we also ponder and find room for some empathy and compassion for a world beyond ours?

People queue up to receive food packets arranged  by a local organisation and residents in Kalbadevi on Sunday. Pic/Bipin Kokate
People queue up to receive food packets arranged by a local organisation and residents in Kalbadevi on Sunday. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Ajaz AshrafA hush has fallen over India, as the countrywide lockdown to slow community transmission of the Coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, has had people retreat indoors. Yet the hush does not have the feel of quietude but of eeriness, because people have chosen to silence the noises peculiar to our residential colonies. Our neighbours do not play music or TV at a high decibel level, or let children holler and thud around. Even the comforting sound of the pressure cooker whistling has surprisingly become rare. We have become collectively anesthetised.

Noise, in India, symbolises normalcy and happiness. Tourists express the bliss they experience in remote mountain getaways by making noise. Silence, to us, is synonymous with sadness and gloomy seriousness. We are mourning life as we knew it. COVID-19 is undermining, bit by bit, our certitude, which is anchored in the belief that we are destined to live until we are at least 70 or 80 or 90 years old. We script the minutiae of our lives, down to keeping aside money for our old age. Premature death had always been for the unfortunate.

We are now terrorised at the thought of the invisible virus penetrating the armour of security we bought, and striking and adding us to the list of the dead. Our anaesthetic silence is because we have been shocked into mulling the fragility and ephemerality of our existence. Face-to-face with death, we are frightened, in which state, as is our default mode, we have become silent, in the hope of evading the predator.

Death is a precondition to living. Existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich wrote that humans are the only species capable of contemplating their death. It spawns in them the fear that fate and death could lay waste dreams conceived to satisfy our egos. We are then haunted by the meaninglessness and emptiness of our lives. We deny or repress our existential angst, which, German Philosopher Martin Heidegger thought, could lead us to accept our mortality, and turn our being, and living, into a liberating experience.

All death anxieties are existential in nature. But the anxiety reflected in our mournful silence today conforms to what psychoanalyst Robert Langs called predatory death anxiety, which arises from the perceived threat to our lives, individually and collectively. It kicks in us a fight-flight response. No quarter is given to the predator, which must be annihilated.

The Coronavirus is, however, a treacherous foe. It is invisible, multiplies rapidly, has no certain cure, and there is no vaccine, as of now, for inoculating ourselves against it. The virus is indiscriminating in its attack, felling the rich and the poor. Its unpredictability has shattered our illusion of controlling the levers of our lives. We have retreated indoors to regroup in our war against the Coronavirus.

A degree of anxiety is necessary for survival. But the eerie hush, which has not been prescribed under the lockdown, and reports of our despicable actions suggest that death anxiety is turning the nation neurotic. Landlords have evicted healthcare workers and airline crew because they are feared to be carriers of the Coronavirus. We have created a new class of untouchables to defy mortality. The fear of death has turned us callous, evident from the government not even giving a thought to the heart-rending impact the lockdown could have on daily wage-earners, who are now trekking hundreds of miles to reach their natal places.

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech announcing the countrywide lockdown, harped on the need of maintaining social distance by asking citizens to keep themselves and their family safe. There is a world beyond our family that requires compassion. Our fear of death has been fanned. Those who are middle or upper class have sought to cheat death by stocking up food as if preparing for an apocalypse.

Face-to-face with death, this might be the moment for us to find liberation from the fear of death. This might be the moment for us to fathom what it must feel to be uncertain of the next day's meal, to be denied basic healthcare facilities, to have children die of infections that are curable. This might be the moment for us to empathise with the Kashmiris who languished under a lockdown for months. This might be the moment for us to comprehend that the politics of hate is a harbinger of death for many.

This might also be the moment to serenade those who saved their neighbours during the February riots of Delhi, just as the nation appreciated officials on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19 at 5 pm, March 22. It is as brave to fight the Coronavirus as it is to challenge an unruly mob baying for blood. As our social and political neurosis threatens to become acute, we must reflect on death and turn our existential angst into harbouring compassion for all. That is where our liberation lies — from the fear of death and the Coronavirus.

The writer is a senior journalist

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