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Lately, perusing history has been my thing. It has proven to be a handy place of refuge as I strive to be a fugitive of the times. Times that have ensnared our thoughts, wellness, vision boards, health, livelihoods and in regrettable instances – ensnared the lives of men, for good. These Covid times. See, I am two decades and a couple of years in doing this life thing. That’s the bulk of experience I can boast of. Apart from burying some close relatives in the recent past, never before have I navigated such murky waters. This applies to droves of people, who, just like myself are struggling to get a hold of survival. As a result, there has been noticeable debate concerning the futility of suffering and to a greater extent – the cancellation of 2020. Everybody worth their salt wishes 2020 never happened. And so, a lot of talk about ‘post-covid’ or ‘when this is over’ is loudly audible in most conversations. Simply put, Covid is an experience worth forgetting because the strife it has presented is at best immemorable.. Which in all honesty got me thinking about contributions of suffering in shaping our lives. The elderly, books, documentaries, articles, journals and every other repository of valuable information are what I looked to for clarity. Perhaps shedding some light into the archives will aid in establishing a considerable nexus between tribulations and human resilience.
During the 2nd World War, Europe was rapidly undergoing a hostile takeover orchestrated by Hitler. The raging blaze of captivity was yet to raze Britain but countries they identified as allies were being annexed thick and fast. In anticipation, vehement debates took place in the British parliament concerning their preparedness to battle the looming Nazis. Parliamentarians had numerous reservations about Prime Minister; Neville Chamberlain’s capabilities to lead in war as he was known to prefer a dovish approach internationally. Led by Clement Attlee, the opposition expressed their lack of confidence in Chamberlain’s leadership which drove the latter to resignation.
This was how Winston Churchill’s premiership was born. A man who described his mother, a glamorous woman but too widely loved and claimed that his father was like God, “busy elsewhere”. He was a humorous man full of charisma despite his short and stout appearance. On top of that, Winston was blessed with a gift of the gab. But of the 55 Premiers Britain has had, why is Churchill so widely celebrated to date ? Primarily because he took over when there was no hope. With his tenure remarkably dubbed ‘The Darkest Hour’. For the first time the Island of Britain was facing subjugation. Which was very uncharacteristic going by their global record. Churchill turned the course of World War 2 from impending Nazi domination to subsequent capitulation of Hitler’s troops in Europe . It’s a feat largely attributed not to Winston’s miraculous powers but his refusal to quit even when the deck was stacked against him. Churchill stuck to his guns to the extent members of his War cabinet thought he was delusional in balking the Nazis. However, his valor earned him the support of the Crown and the people. Standing by his convictions he not only won the war against Hitler but left us with some of the most beautiful sentences ever to be read in times of crises.
He said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our aim ? It is victory at all costs. However long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. No survival for all we have loved and cared for. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men.”
In India exists one of the most coveted tourist attractions in the world. Taj Mahal is a building that stands a personification of love. Although it contains a rich history drawn from pain. Shah Jahan who was the Mughal Emperor built it in honor of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she passed away. Mumtaz’s death was tragic but in that tragedy the unstretchable boundaries of love were defined by Shah Jahan in what he did to honour her. The Taj Mahal is an architectural master class marveled at by over 8 million tourists every year. Sired out of the pain of loss it is a testimony that has stood the test of time for over 500 years. To date it remains one of the greatest expressions of grief symbolizing love.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R) is profoundly celebrated as a reforms stalwart of his time. Roosevelt was elected in 1933 during the bleakest days of the Great Depression.. In his inaugural address he asserted that the only thing to fear is fear itself and that he would act swiftly to avert the dark realities of the moment. True to his word, F.D.R delivered the Great New Deal – a piece of legislation which instituted programs aimed at restoring prosperity of all American people. The deal created jobs, increased social security, reduced inequality and overall bettered the quality of life in what was once a moribund state. In his eight year tenure he was able to restore America from the clutches of squalor. Even though he took up the Presidency when it was least desirable.
Between 1881-1917, Russia was in a political crossfire. Pitting the monarchy versus masses. For 300 years, the Romanovs had lorded over Russians and revolutionaries could not stomach it any longer. Vladimir Ulyanov Lenin was part of this revolutionary crop. Interestingly, his desire to oust the Czars was not resolute until the murder of his brother, Aleksander Ulyanov by the monarchy. It’s an event that pushed Lenin to put his life on the brink for as long as he would eventually avenge his brother’s death. Fun fact, for the protagonist of the Russian revolution, toppling the Romanov dynasty was more a personal expedition than an ideological one. For 300 years Romanovs had menaced Russian lives. In those years they trampled over families without enduring any consequences. Up until one of those years they picked on Lenin’s family which ended up becoming their undoing. Here stood a man who cowered not in the face of peril. Then lived a man who eternally wrought his name in history for upending a regime that had long survived hundreds of years. Only because he dared to do so.
Ever heard of the idiom ‘crossing the Rubicon ?’ Turns out there is a story behind it too. Well once upon a time the Roman Senate ordered one of their governors not to cross the Rubicon river and return with his troops back home. In an act of treason, he went ahead and did the opposite causing the Roman Civil War. It also occurred that the rebellious Roman Governor happened to be Julius Caesar. As he acted against his marching orders, it is believed he uttered the words, ‘the die is cast’. Historians concur that crossing the Rubicon river instigated Caesar’s ascendancy to Emperor. Indeed, the die was cast because even today, Caesar still is one of the most fabled Roman Emperor’s of all time.
More relatable to our times, is also the laudable life and work of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was born in 1564 at a time when the bubonic plague was starting to wipe out swathes of people in England. It was a plague also known as the ‘black death’. It was a bacterial infection that spread through contact with fleas. Remarkably, Shakespeare’s most eminent pieces were produced in 1606. Which on the contrary was a tragic year for England. In 1606, there was another outbreak of the plague that killed up to 30 people a week. In November 1605, a failed assassination attempt of King James I famously known as the ‘gunpowder plot’ had also put London in a state of political precariousness and high tension. Yet it was at this time that Shakespeare produced his best work. Which included the Macbeth, Cleopatra, King Lear and Mark Anthony. It is understood the uncertainty of life caused by political upheavals in England and frequent plague outbursts that wiped out people are what inspired Shakespeare’s best plays.

So I posit a question, is it purely coincidental that the worst of circumstances have brought out the best in men ? A friend of mine told me we are not diamonds, we break under pressure. But do we really ? I do not intend to fetishize suffering. Neither am I hawkish in nature. Just like every other mundane guy – a good drink, a sumptuous meal and quality sleep does it for me.
Similarly I do not mean to denigrate atrocities that have hurt people. Some leave scars for life and generations to come. Nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still bedevil the people of Japan today. The Rwandan Genocide, the pogrom visited upon Namibians by Germany are also catastrophes which have had lasting consequences. Bombing of Beirut has left more griping than smiling. People we know have also lost loved ones to coronavirus and it would be the height of insensitivity to think that a pandemic would produce the best of us let alone them.. The Spanish flu claimed 50 million lives. The Chernobyl disaster had significant health defects on constituents of Europe. Therefore, it makes sense to conclude that there is no pleasure in pain. Nothing constructive can sprout from destruction.
HIV/AIDs also claimed scores of lives around the world. The late Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi lost seven band members and a brother too. But then I wonder, is it not the callousness of AIDs that elicited Oliver’s brilliance in the timeless songs ‘Todii’ and ‘Neria’ ? Two tunes he belted out that have had a tremendous effect in creating awareness of AIDS and curbing it’s spread. Franco Luambo died of AIDS but ‘Attention na Sida’ – a song about AIDS – is touted by many a fan as his most powerful song.
It is important to acknowledge that disasters shred the fabric of mankind without a doubt. Or on the other hand tragedy has shown it’s capacity to cement human brilliance.
It’s been a Pandora’s Box in my view- a tussle of two school of thoughts -Hedonists up against Stoics. Those who believe pleasure is the key motivation for mankind’s success. Or perhaps those who remain indifferent to pleasure and pain surmounting all circumstances, severe peril notwithstanding.
What I do know is; we may not choose how we get decimated but our response towards danger is purely up to us. If we thumb our noses at extinction sometimes we may survive because fortune favours the brave. We too can alter our sorrows to monumental moments following Shah Jahan’s example. Consequently, maybe there will never be a ‘when this is over’ or a ‘post-covid’ and we all have to stop waiting for a life that may never be. This might be as good as it gets and we have to live now. The idea that Covid must go for us to be at our best could turn out a pipe dream. We may have to walk in the footsteps of Winston, Franklin and Shakespeare who took circumstances of their time and carved them out to work for them.. Akin to a defiant Caesar who reached out for his dreams in spite of the great terror he immersed himself in.
Socrates told us ‘Fame is the perfume of heroic deeds’. For a person suffering depression surviving a day might just be a heroic deed. For us living during these Covid times wearing a mask, sanitising and staying healthy may tick that box as well. We can all achieve heroism in our miniature lives. Definitions belong to definers not the defined, remember ? But to whatever extent you capable of, spread your wings, do so because we never know when we will fade into oblivion. “ Carpe diem” seize the day as it is and stop hoping for a better tomorrow you know not of. Bring to mind that sometimes these hard times actually push people to grow a pair. Look to the silver lining as Oscar Wilde would wish. Since we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.
Cicero, what is a class on History without a pinch of Cicero anyway. “Live as brave men; and if fortune is adverse, front it’s blows with brave hearts.”

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