Stories and our common future

The crises created by the Covid19 pandemic have phases, waves. They will co-occur, overlap, recur. 

The crisis in public health has been the most evident. Then there are the crisis of economies and livelihoods, the crisis of social insecurity and mistrust of incompetent elected leaders, and the waves of the crisis of mental wellbeing that have begun to hit us before the tsunami crashes down on us.

There was the phase of going into lockdown. The anticipated but unclear phase of slowly coming out of it. The phase of making peace with that this, right here, is the new normal. Where we keep 6 feet apart, wear masks in public spaces, do not shake hands, do not hug friends and extended family, wash hands often.

How do we process and deal with all of this? As citizens, caregivers, parents, teachers, workers, managers, leaders?

In his wonderful book The Myth Gap, Alex Evans writes that shared myths help us conceptualise what we are experiencing before we aim to solve it. Shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. He cites Karen Armstrong: “A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically.

Mythologies and stories, while not to be taken literally, can give hope and provide creative sparks.

With my Indian lens, I am seeing all these overlapping, recurrent phases and waves as the fabled Samudra Manthan, the churning of the divine ocean made of milk, from which many things emerged .

Both Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, as well as her counterpart Jyestha, the goddess of misfortune emerged from the churn.

More than one symbol of prosperity and wellbeing emerged including the Kamadhenu, a divine wish-granting cow, and Kalpavriksha, a divine wish-granting tree. In some versions of the story, the latter takes the form of Parijata (also known as Shefaly, this is a shrub with a fragrant flower that does not fade or wilt).

Dhanvantari, the physician to the Gods, emerged as a symbol of health and wellness.

Also emerged some frivolities and finer things in life. Such as Apsaras, divine or earthly nymphs, who are practitioners of the fine arts and music and dance; Varuni, the goddess of wine; and Kaustubha, a precious gemstone adorning the forehead of Vishnu, the god of preservation in the Hindu triad.

But crucially there was Halahal, a venom of such potency that it could destroy all of humanity if it were not contained, somewhat evocative of this pandemic itself.

And finally, Amrita, the elixir of life, emerged.

This myth runs the gamut of human feelings, desires, fears, and hopes.

We need similar shared stories to kickstart our imaginations today as we navigate our way out of this crisis. The stories require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a purposeful vision of a better future together. 

Where are those stories? Will they be local, regional, or shared across the world? Can we afford to believe in different stories? Who will tell those stories? How will they be shared?

(Samudra Manthan at Bangkok Airport, Wikimedia Foundation image)

(This post is in a series of posts I wrote during the covid19 pandemic that began 2020. The first post can be read here, the second here, and the third here.)

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