Human being is the only animal that thinks about future. Some other animals too, appear to care for the time ahead. Squirrels store food before winter, rats dig burrows for cold season. But these are instinctive behaviours triggered by the changing hours of daylight or temperature as seasons change. No animal looks at its dying progeny and sees a bleak future for itself. No animal cares for old members of the pack because such practice will ensure its own survival in dotage.
This unique endowment of human mind, capacity to run ahead of time, is both a blessing and a curse. We plan and try to ensure a comfortable future – a major share of our savings goes in this kitty.
But this singular capacity of the mind is also responsible for much human suffering. We continuously speculate on the time to come. And we ceaselessly fret and fear a future that forebodes ill.
I have practiced medicine for three decades. In medical school we were taught that the cornerstone of the management of a disease is formulation of a plan of action. A major component of the plan is to envisage the course of ailment, complications that may ensue, and be prepared to deal with them. This preoccupation with the future behaviour of the malady was emphasised incessantly, almost brutally, during my post-graduate training in Anaesthesia. I learnt, practice of safe Anaesthesia hinges on foreseeing, as clearly as possible, how a patient would behave during surgery, and equipping for all that may come about. Over the years this became an instinctual behaviour.
Avalanche of misery crushing us Indians today, as the reincarnated virus surges triumphantly, forces me to unlearn this instinct. I welter in darkness, in a sea of uncertainty, robbed of every possible recourse to plan for future adversity.
My son registers a temperature of 1040 F. I am recuperating from the infection, but immediately jump up like a jack-in-the-box. I consult my physician friends. No pharmacy, near my house, has any of the required drugs. My friends come to rescue. I cannot help but think about the course of son’s illness. Will his condition worsen? Only ten percent of infected people need hospitalisation. But there is no indication that he may not be that one in ten. I ring my friends again. Will they procure my son a bed if he needs one? They would start looking for one when the need arises. Can I get an Oxygen cylinder? Oxygen is more difficult than a hospital bed. I have read innumerable accounts of people – highly connected and privileged – die in their cars as they are ferried from one hospital to another. I know large hospitals, like ones my wife and I work, which have a ceaseless horde of 20-30 critically ill patients, panting, waiting in ambulances or on roads outside emergency, some with oxygen, some without. Many will perish in this wait. Their children, parents, or spouses, will then wait in another que; for a pyre in the burial ground and then for wood for the pyre.
Overnight, I cannot instruct my mind to unlearn the lessons it learned in millions of years. I cannot banish the spectre of these dark images as they clutter my mind. I tip-toe to my son’s bedroom and put my ear to the door. He coughs. Is it the sign of worsening lung? I see myself running helter-skelter for bed. My friends making hectic calls to their hospitals. It’s deep in the night. I wait for few more minutes. He doesn’t cough again. I turn back.
This is the tragedy of the present catastrophe. We are bereft of every shred of succour in this hour of a bottomless agony. We are denied today one means human beings had learned to cope with misfortune; Hope.
Robert Burn’s poem, written in 1785, comes to mind. Burn laments this aspect of human nature, as he commiserates with a field mouse, whose nest he has inadvertently destroyed.
But little mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew.
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still, you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!
Abandoned in this crisis, my suffering countrymen, can only curse and bewail their forward-looking mind.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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