Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
16 Apr 2020
What is wrong with modern fear of death and why we need voluntary lockdown for a week or two every year?
Last few weeks have exposed certain pathological attitudes we have been living with including the following:
Taking affairs of life too seriously and thus failing to appreciate the adventure of the climax of life – death or the great secret and joy of dying every moment or dying before death in which lies the true art of living well.
Our failure to live with ourselves and be truly religious understood in Whitehedean mystical sense as what one does with one’s solitude. We want gossip and all kinds of distracting activities to escape what is felt as terrible encounter with ourselves, with solitude.
Investing in the art of destruction (war) instead of health by major and minor powers. Corona would hardly be a news if we hadn’t been cheated by our rulers who build warships, polluting industries and massive ecologically harmful farms and projects of all kinds and not hospitals and research labs.
Failure to see such monstrosities as work, work and work (workholism/Capitalism nurtured protestant ethic of work) as the norm or driving a car daily to workplace/resort while failing to experience and attend to the most ennobling “work” of being just oneself, the art of contemplation and basking in the sanctuary of soul.
Failure to cultivate the space of relationships – one hardly ever looks once deep into the eyes of our near and dear ones including parents, children and spouses as that is a life’s work that would never cause boredom or require early lifting of “lockdown.” The greatest joy life can offer is love and play for the sake of love and play and these are perfectly possible inside homes with spouses and children. We have built houses and not homes – how tragic that domestic violence has increased during lockdown. The most sublime and treasured object of life is to experience it under the shade of eternity or heaven and this is possible by turning more inward than outward or better transcending the distinction between home and street or inward and outward. Bedil has said that rather than stroll in the most prized garden, he just needs to tune to the station of heart within to experience heaven. Poetry is a way to access this heaven and how tragic that this is missing from our lives. Those who know the excitement of words have hardly any desperation for other excitements that living with the other or outside offer. Telling stories is what is central to the art of living and how joyfully we have, previously, endured months of lockdown by God during winters by telling stories to ourselves and one another. Writers write, children devour and we the masses live great stories/myths told in scriptures and classics.
Over-investment in outdoor and under-investment in indoor activities including sports by this other directed self-escaping civilization that Joyce rightly called syphilization.
Failure to cultivate love of reading books. Had our schooling been a success we would never have parted with books. And those who can read books and find almost everything there need not fear lockdown. The state would not need to enforce lockdown in a society where people read. Retirement is felt as punishment and not gift because we don’t know that life is about living and not just working. We fail to appreciate poetry and beauty of life in the school of life – schools kill the poet in us – lived on its own terms, for the sake of greater or more bounteous life. We fail to heed those asking for transforming life into a work of art.
Failure to put God before religion. “Religion is a means, not the end. It becomes idolatrous when regarded as an end in itself.” “There is nothing more important, according to the Torah, than to preserve human life …. Even when there is the slightest possibility that a life may be at stake one may disregard every prohibition of the law.” One must sacrifice mitzvah for the sake of man, rather than sacrifice man for the sake of mitzvah. The purpose of the Torah is “to bring life to Israel, in this world and in the world to come.” Those who put mosques or congregational prayers before God (especially in the times of Corona) need to note this.
Failure to understand life and work of such monks as Merton or appreciate vivifying value of voluntary withdrawal /Chilla/Itikaf. All our problems spring from our inability to sit alone (as Kierkegaard noted) or failure to learn doing itikaf. This year’s Ramadhan seems to promise the luxurious feast of itikaf to all and sundry. In fact as Heschel has noted that the great dream of religion (for him Judaism) is not to raise priests, but a people of priests; to consecrate all men, not only some men.” Few amongst us have so far had time for ourselves or commune leisurely with God (itikaf)
Failure to appreciate how small (small scale industries/home based skills and crafts, including home schooling) may be beautiful – as Schumacher taught – and the sanctifying value of manual work as traditional cultures including Islamic and such influential figures as Heidegger and Gandhi taught, how the best job is one closest to one’s home or ideally in home and obsession with machines such as cars constitutes necrophilia (love of corpses) as Eric Fromn argued. There is enough for everyone’s need and we don’t need to work throughout week or six days to live with dignity. The spirit of “Abolition of Work” movement that underscored little noticed pathological character of modern living that gives a holiday or two in a week need to be understood. In fact, far happier civilizations/communities than ours are premised on working on average for less than half of time we are required to. People centric, life centric and environment centric governments would institute, for all and not just employees, three days a week or one session (forenoon or afternoon) for five days besides compulsory holidays – organized lockdown with periodical home delivery of essentials (in Kashmir after Eid azZuha would be ideal as no shortage of quality food and what else is essential as few would need doctors or go sick with such celebratory environment with our families) – for a month or so. We need to recharge batteries of Spirit, whose fuel is time, silence, rest. Traditional cultures have revivified spirit by truly living weekly holiday, number of community festivals/celebrations/special days for heroes that would extend for days, sometimes weeks. We hardly observe Sabbath or holiday and do all kinds of distracting even exhausting works on weekly holidays. This is time to reclaim the legacy of Torah and Jewish people dealing with the meaning of Sabbath (Saturday, weekday for Jews, involving abstaining from any work, doing nothing but living, just being). Let us focus, with Heschel (the philosopher of religion reading and assimilating whom one would endure, even long for, lockdown for months) on how to honour holidays or appreciate true meaning of sabbaticals/vocations. A few statements from his God in Search for Man today, leaving his more detailed treatment of the theme in In The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man for future. Reading Heschel is a way of transforming the pain of lockdown into joy.
For Heschel Sabbath is the art of surpassing civilization and preview of heaven – “the incomplete form of the world to come is the Sabbath.” What shall one be doing in heaven if not rest and chant or sing to heart’s content? And Sabbath is “a reminder of every man’s royalty; an abolition of the distinction of master and slave, rich and poor, success and failure. To celebrate the Sabbath is to experience one’s ultimate independence of civilization and society, of achievement and anxiety. The Sabbath is an embodiment of the belief that all men are equal and that equality of men means the nobility of men. The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince.” During lockdown we are all princes, not paupers as it is civilization that defines a pauper. “The Sabbath is an assurance that the spirit is greater than the universe, that beyond the good is the holy…The Sabbath is holiness in time. ..The presence of eternity, a moment of majesty, the radiance of joy. The soul is enhanced, time is a delight, and inwardness a supreme reward. Indignation is felt to be a desecration of the day, and strife the suicide of one’s additional soul.”
“Six days a week we are engaged in conquering the forces of nature, in the arts of civilization. The seventh day is dedicated to the remembrance of creation and the remembrance of redemption…to the exodus from a great civilization into a wilderness where the word of God was given. By our acts of labor during the six days we participate in the works of history; by sanctifying the seventh day we are reminded of the acts that surpass, ennoble and redeem history.”
“Civilization is on trial. Its future will depend upon how much of the Sabbath will penetrate its spirit.” “The Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience.” Every holiday “we must kindle the lights in the soul, enhance our mercy, deepen our sensitivity.”
Now an important question that concerns especially medical staff, administration and volunteers who help reduce pain in the wake of Corona. The question where is God during Corona may be answered by transposing the remark about Holocaust to corona. “Where was God during Holocaust?” is answered by a counter-question “Where was Man?” A doctor/volunteer says labayka (I am present). And “We tend to read the Bible looking for mighty acts that God does and not seeing that all the way through the Bible God is waiting for human beings to act.” This lesson is especially put forth by Camus’ hero (Dr. Rieux) in The Plague who serves tirelessly stating that all he knows is that his job – calling, vocation and “salvation” – is to lessen misery.
Holidays – healing days, holy days, days devoted to living as against this or that work/engagement/official assignments/money making – are invitations to feasts we mostly miss. Heschel states: “Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.” We have forgotten distinction between labour and toil (where soul is not) and means (“work,” time) and end (rest/living/eternity). Pity those who rest to work confusing means (work) for an end (rest). Angels flee from the shops/offices where work goes on even after designated closing time and on some holidays.
For those who take the Prophet (SAW) seriously by opting for a sort of itikaf or self/home quarantine during epidemics and don’t court suicide (cardinal sin) or endanger lives of others but nevertheless die during Corona, these words of great sage Heschel: “In Jewish tradition, dying in one’s sleep is called a kiss of God, and dying on the Sabbath is a gift that is merited by piety. For the pious person, my father once wrote, it is a privilege to die.” Death is a celebration and may well be celebrated by a feast – death anniversaries should be celebrated as is the tradition of urs. Death is an adventure we lose in hospitals and is best enjoyed consciously, in home as if it is the first night of wedding (One recalls here Ghulam Rasool Nazki who made it a point to die consciously – adventurously, joyfully.)
Original Headline: Living and dying in the times of corona