Unmasked, reflections on the pandemic and life

People need to draw the right lessons from the experiences of the last several months, as individuals and a collective

Updated - January 01, 2021 01:06 am IST

Published - January 01, 2021 12:02 am IST

Masked living for the last 10 months to stave off the novel coronavirus has raised questions: of the purpose and the meaning of life. Some of the most memorable moments of life flow from connection. But we covered our mouth and nose and kept a distance from others for most part of last year. Is survival and doing some work for it the sole purpose of life? The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to live restricted lives for most part of the last year. Reflection is more conscious during such confinement. I too underwent isolation and reflection. What is the purpose of life and is there meaning to the way we are living? Such questions filled our minds. Life has been unmasked as we masked ourselves to survive.

On the purpose of life

The purpose of life is to be happy, said the Dalai Lama. But what is happiness and how does one attain that state and stay put? In our quest for life, besides wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance, working from home became an integral part of the universal COVID-19 culture that emerged last year. But is work the only purpose of life and source of happiness? Nothing gives a person a sense of purpose than a distinct understanding of what she does. Are we so enlightened to pursue work without being conscious and concerned about the results and find meaning in it? If work is a means of survival, are we finding meaning in it?

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Life is a battle against uncertainties and challenges. As the most evolved of living organisms and living in the most complex order of economic, scientific and technological interconnectedness, humanity has witnessed a heightened share of such battles during 2020, the year of the pandemic. How does one cope with such a situation and live with equanimity and balance? The pandemic has unleashed an internal churning about the purpose and meaning of life as we all pressed a pause button. It dawned on us that life cannot be on the highway all the time. Philosophical reflection was forced on us.

Plato said philosophy is a process of constant questioning that takes the form of dialogue. While coping with modern life, we have stopped talking to ourselves. The pandemic forced us to think about the way we are living and ought to live. It has underlined the need to revisit and, if required, redefine the purpose and meaning of life. This is all about reorienting our mindsets as the pandemic taught us a few lessons of life.

A journey as challenge

There is no objective meaning of life written in the stars, in a holy book or in sequences of DNA. Birth and death are not subject to our volition. The principal challenge is to navigate the journey in between these two points, defining its purpose and finding a meaning. The pandemic has shattered the arrogance of humans of being supreme and the master of all living and non-living forms around. The principal lesson learned is that we are only part of a larger design and have got to live that way, and not at the expense of others.

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The forgotten ideas of oneness, interconnectedness and the intelligent laws that govern the universe have come to the fore once again. The regular outbreak of viruses including the latest one in Wuhan city has brought out the consequences of growing interference with nature, with attendant disturbances in the habitations of the different living forms. The wild is forced to have an eye on human habitation. Humans are only a part of the incredible scheme of coexistence that we call nature. The issue is not about saving nature. It is more about aligning with it and understanding how we are one.

In the troubled order of uncertainties of various kinds, the major challenge for individuals is to correct confusion and puzzlements about oneself and the world. The philosophy of life is an overall vision and attitude towards life and the purpose of it. It helps one in building principles in fighting the adversities of life and living in happiness. Happiness means different things to different people and it is an individual’s call. Seneca in his Moral Letters said philosophy offers counsel. It strengthens one’s ability to remain steady in the chaos and rush of life.

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A specific purpose of life determines the choices one makes and influences behaviour toward the surroundings. These choices and behaviour determine the happiness that life should aim at. Choices include those we are willing to give up to remain sane and purposeful.

The personal experience

During the COVID-19 enforced confinement, and more so during the post-infection isolation, I reflected on my journey so far. I have assessed the journey till now, its vicissitudes, how I have handled different situations and whether I could have been different and done better in different contexts. I did find that life was at a fast pace, was too involved in work and should have spent a little more time with the family. I could have struck a different life-work balance. I have evolved and grown with the times and the experiences that came along. I too have had my share of testing times and handled them in my own ways. Spiritualism came in handy on many occasions to find solutions and happiness when tested. It sprung from within that I should focus more on social service after a long innings in politics and networking change agents for further galvanising the change.

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One’s contribution is key

We have an individual form for a limited time like a wave. We live only once and have to live in the best possible manner. Human nature to be happy leads us to search for peace both within and without. Evolution from selfishness to self-realisation promotes common good. Living in moderation is the best lesson of the experience of the pandemic. Living with equanimity and harmoniously with all beings, our surroundings and society is ideal living. We need to talk to ourselves and define the purpose and meaning of life based on the lessons of the last several months and individual predilections. One is the master of one’s life and the path to its meaning. The meaning of life lies in contributing to the flourishing of humanity and the nature around for common welfare. Sharing and caring is the essence of our age old ethos. This confers a certain meaning to life.

The Bhagavad Gita says of life; “Whatever happened, happened for the good; Whatever is happening, is happening for the good; and whatever will happen, will also happen for the good.” This warrants us to evolve to find equilibrium to face the unending uncertainties.

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A new strain of the novel coronavirus is being talked about even as we are coming to terms with the parent. Uncertainties never cease. We need to tune ourselves to face them with stillness to stay in a happy state of mind and live with a purpose from which the meaning flows.

The spin-offs

The handling of the pandemic during the dark year, 2020, annus horribilis , has some positives. While it normally takes several years to come up with a vaccine, the scientific community has succeeded in finding some candidates for COVID-19 in less than a year, much to the relief of all. The vaccine has begun to be administered already in some parts of the world. Vaccinating people all across the globe is the next big challenge.

India has risen admirably as a nation to fight the pandemic. A parliamentary panel that examined various aspects of its handling has appreciated the grit and the determination that underlined this massive national effort and has complimented all stakeholders for the same even as it chronicled the hardship caused. The way the spread of virus and mortality has been kept under check are no mean achievements.

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The need of the hour is to draw the right lessons from the experiences of the last several months as both individuals and a collective so as to usher in annus mirabilis , by wiping out the pandemic and the havoc it has brought on us. Constant vigil is needed till the fight is finally won decisively. Learning to live with a purpose and meaning is the biggest takeaway of the year that has gone by.

M. Venkaiah Naidu is the Vice-President of India

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