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Home > 2020 > Re-discovering self in COVID times | Garima Mani Tripathi

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

Re-discovering self in COVID times | Garima Mani Tripathi

Friday 4 September 2020

by Garima Mani Tripathi

Philosophers have often spoken about the concept of ‘self’ through detachments from ‘external material life’ and through process of inner self-purification. However, ‘self’ stands diluted in contemporary period, subsumed under the rubric of mechanical and material life. Modernist icons of commodity capitalism like malls, food joints, cinemas etc, have become inseperable aspects of our material life and taken over our folk culture, neighbourhood and even our extended kith and kin system though we remain connected on social media. In the process, ‘self’ is trapped and displaced far away than choreographed in philosophical discourses. COVID-19, despite its pervasive and comprehensive negative impact on economic and social life, has given an opportunity to re-discover and re-deem this lost ‘self’.

In Socratic tradition, emphasis was always on ‘know thy self’. This implied a simple and virtuous life, to be realised primarily through dialogue with self (soliloquies). The Greek philosophers also popularised the concept of eudaimonia, i.e. highest state of happiness, possible in seeking simple and virtuous milestones. But in contemporary period, most of us have become victims of hedonistic worldview wherein we look only towards one-dimensional aspect of material happiness. The consequential result has been an unhappy ‘self’, seeking happiness in mechanical-material-urban world and yet remaining highly dissastisfied and confused. Albert Camus criticised this as ‘absurdity of human life’. In his famed treatise Plague (based on the experiences of pandemic that took place a century back), he emphasised upon small, incremental engagement with world without material or any other inclinations.

Unfortunately, contemporary world is bereft of the idealised self that is happy with small and incremental attainments. Instead, there is a mad race about more and more. Everyone is beset with what is known as ‘keeping up with Joneses’. The human self has metamorphosed into an industrial self assisted by inducements of artificial desires / needs by mass media. Irrespective of resource constraints, most human beings have turned into ‘one-dimensional man’ having little time to ponder about self and the social self in ideational terms. We seldom have pangs of guilt since we often live in a world of false consciousness. At the end of the day, we have a self that is alienated with social collectivity.

The alienation between self and social self is visible both at macro and micro level, i.e., within the four walls of the house. Households, earlier synonymous with immanence (realm of maintenance) were distinct from outer platforms for people seeking realm of transcendence; leading to clear division between private and public sphere. In due course, however, public sphere became dominant along with concurrent dilution of the private sphere and dilution of kith and kin system. We do have rich and prosperous inviduals but many of them are not emotionally attached with their aged relations. Even with younger ones, they do not have time and space to share. Households, thus, in many cases, have turned into a mere shelter for those isolated, alienated and dis-satisfied self!

This is not the concept of ‘self’ espoused in philosophical discourses. Therefore, we need to proliferate the COVID experiences to move towards that ideal self. First, COVID has forced us into compulsive simplicity. Most household jobs are being done without domestic help. The neighbourhood tailor and laundry are gone. The able ones in the households have to fend for themselves along with caring of the aged and children. Thus, the concept of family has been re-kindled where the ‘self’ identifies itself and work in tandem with the larger self. We soak in the company of each other rather than the material and artifical world outside. Second, until now, the ‘mundane self’ was suppressed under the artificial weight of ‘ambitious self’. Consequently, we were going out of the households for seeking happiness in pomp, show and glitz of the material world! Pangs of depression in occassional cases notwithstanding, the complete lockedown in early COVID phase also forced us to re-emphasise on mundane self through small and incremental happiness packages within the household. Third, German philosopher Heidegger, though controversial, once lamented that human beings (Dasein) are in existential trap without actually living a meaningful life. This existential dilemma could be overcome through ‘home coming’ by indulgence in poetry, imagination, care and healing. One need not agree with his ideological leanings but such times of leisure at home enables one to be reflective, introspective, and at peace with the self. One also gets to appreiciate sublime things of life associated with nature like chirping of birds, dance of rains, wafting of clouds, blooming of flowers, so on and so forth. Fourth, COVID has also exposed the fallacy of false class consciousness by impacting people across class. Unlike other health issues where the rich have better healthcare, lack of suitable vaccine for COVID so far has made everybody’s life miserable in same proportion. Social distancing norm applies to rich and poor alike! Tragic as it may sound, the vulnerability and spectre of death has rendered individuals to be the ideational humans embodying kindness, empathy and love. Reversion to ‘self’ is, therefore, the logical outcome where the rich are forced to leave their luxury cars in garages and forego social outings, tourist extra vaganza and manage their life within the simplicity of households. On a positive note, the pandemic also reflected the humanistic aspects of elites in ivory towers. While doing common chores, artists and other page-3 celebrities ventured out in philanthropic endeavours and found joys in the very act of pure ‘giving’ as opposed to their alienation in blind accumulation of wealth. Fifth, COVID also resulted in the felt need to be gregarious, as Aristotle had dubbed humans as ‘social animals’. Self is not an island in itself but actualises in company of others and achieves true harmony against the conflicted darker self. ‘Google meets’ and ‘zoom parties’ fail awfully short of this basic human instinct to interact with others and expose the limitations of virtual meetings and communication!

In nutshell, the pandemic has brought the humans closer to each other. We have witnessed the selfless assistance provided by many, irrespective of economic capacities, to the vulnerable and marginal class with care and compassion. Evidently manifest is the discovery of true self-identity of men and extension of their selves to the larger communities. Such incidents, no doubt would usher in a paradigm shift in the long run about our perception of the self and others and the triumph of the ‘humane’.

We may soon be over with the pangs of COVID. But will the re-discovery of ‘self’ be an ephemeral pleasure or can it be perpetuated? COVID-19 has provided an opportunity towards some lasting philosophical engineering. We can live a simple life without getting overtly trapped into the material world, minimise our requirements, reduce our dependency on outside world and seek happiness in small things. Paul Dolan in his book (Happy Ever After, 2019) has beautifully summarised that our idea of happiness (for self) should shift from ‘more please’ to ‘just enough’. Perhaps, herein lies our challenge to live as true and simple human beings as postulated by Gandhi and others.

Note: Garima Mani Tripathi, PhD, teaches Philosophy in Mata Sundri College for Women, University of Delhi.

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