Death is inevitable, but you don’t have to get used to it


With indifference comes recklessness, which we cannot afford during a pandemic

We must not let our guard down, even when the going looks bleak, so that we can completely prevent such scenes from happening. File photo: Anisur Rahman


We must not let our guard down, even when the going looks bleak, so that we can completely prevent such scenes from happening. File photo: Anisur Rahman

Life is just a dash

between dates, birth and death.

I wrote this short poem a long time ago, inspired by a cemetery headstone. I brooded over the fate of a man who had turned into a corpse, then reduced to a sign marked with dates. In the eternal existence of humanity, an individual occupies a limited space. No matter how ‘dashing’ a life may seem, it’s a dash between the beginning and the end. We can think of the dash as an open dashboard, where chemical compounds miraculously mix together, giving life a certain shape, a certain space and a certain rhythm, before transforming into another, or we can think of it as a spiritual transition from one material nonform to another, passing through a physical space for a short period of time. The ups and downs of life are like the waves of an echocardiogram: they are the surges of adrenaline, hormonal impulses, instinctual actions and reactions that create the wave patterns, before reaching the peak. flat line.

In Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie Save Private RyanVeteran Ryan takes his family to visit the grave of a Captain Miller, who saved his life during WWII. “Tell me I’ve had a good life. Tell me I’m a good man,” Ryan asked his wife. He wanted his savior to know that the sacrifices made by his peers had not been in vain. “Win it,” were the last words of Captain Miller, whose unit was assigned to save Private Ryan after his four brothers had already been killed in the war. In such stories, the hyphen – life – is linked with other hyphens. The lines form a narrative where the group comes together to compose a story and presents life as beautiful (or ugly, for that matter). Many have died so that we can live.

With more than 4.8 million deaths worldwide from a virus, how can we “earn” the life we ​​have been given? How do we express our gratitude for being alive? Every day, the televised scrolls remind us of the deaths of people who once made our lives interesting: politicians, educators, doctors, engineers, civil servants. For the rest without a name, there is a daily count. In any other situation, each death of famous personalities would have occupied more television time and media attention. Even the death of celebrities no longer moves us. Have we stopped caring? If so, when did we stop worrying about it? Why?

The increase in the number of deaths goes hand in hand with our indifference. Experts call this phenomenon “psychic numbness”: the more people die, the less we care. It appears that the human brain is unable to process a large number of deaths. Mother Teresa once said: “If I watch Mass, I will never act. If I watch one, I will. While a single death can be interpreted as tragic, several deaths may not produce the same emotions. Each death sends a shock wave of mourning in a small circle. Sometimes it can create ripples to reach many shores. Remember three-year-old Aylan Kurdi who was found lying face down on a sandy beach in Turkey? The photo woke the world up with the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet the recurring news of hundreds of people who have died when boats capsized off the coast of Europe does not elicit a similar empathy. Kurdi is a faded memory. The Rohingya are the nightmares we want to forget.

Our indifference will have a lasting impact in a post-Covid-19 scenario. It can damage the way we deal with not only human emotions, but human values. According to a BBC report, there is already evidence that people are suffering from fatigue from the news of Covid-19 and are reading less and less about the pandemic. Lack of care is also manifested by reluctance to wear masks, disinfect hands, or maintain social distancing. One explanation could be that humans are selfish creatures. We want to help others feel good, but as the numbers increase, when things seem out of our hands, our efforts to help seem as small as a drop in the ocean. It gives us an excuse not to worry about it, not to help anyone anymore.

Indifference is also caused by anxieties. However, as the overwhelming presence of news of death and illness becomes a source of anxiety for some, it also becomes an opportunity to harvest anxieties for the benefit of many others. We have already seen how fear-mongering techniques have been used to increase the prices of basic necessities, impose unnecessary medical treatment or manipulate online commerce. The vicious cycle of news and anxiety can make us even more complacent. Rarely do we find the urgency to break this chain and do something to change it.

There are of course reasons to be concerned, but indifference is not an option. Agencies that circulate information in hard facts and figures have an additional role to play in humanizing the information provided. Positive and negative messages are needed. If we do not show the physical, mental, social and financial implications of a Covid-19 patient, many would take the pandemic lightly as the recovery number can be heartwarming. Then again, if we overload the mass of tragic stories, the urge to help the situation may diminish. It’s like when your school fellowship asks for help for a member, you feel generous, but once such requests become frequent, you are less likely to commit.

The same goes for the fatigue of the news of the coronavirus. Humanize it. Think about individual survival stories. People who have succeeded. Frontline supporters. Positive news should be presented in a manageable proportion. Here again, one must also be constantly aware of the drawbacks of complacency.

At a time when we are all dying, the challenge for us is to stay alive, to stay human. My poem written on a gravestone highlights life like a dash. But now that I have the opportunity to come back to my own poem, I think I also have to highlight all the points, all the invisible moments that stir in the visible dash. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we are dealing with small denominations. But these pains and miseries make life worth living. It’s time for us to feel good for ourselves so that we can stay good for others. Our lines must merge with the lines of others, so that we can compose a human story together.

Shamsad Mortuza is Acting Vice Chancellor of the Bangladesh Liberal Arts University (ULAB) and Professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).


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