/ 21 June 2020

Covid-19’s lesson: The stars bandy us about in which way pleases them

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It may be that the most important lesson this pandemic has to teach us is that we don’t control nearly as many things as we like to think we do.

The arrival of the novel coronavirus has taught us many things. These include the fact that Zoom is really quite an amazing piece of technology, and that posting pictures of warm banana bread is the cornerstone of our civilisation. But, it may be that the most important lesson this pandemic has to teach us is that we don’t control nearly as many things as we like to think we do.

Since the Industrial Revolution in particular, people have worked enthusiastically to subjugate nature. We have dammed rivers that used to flood once a year. We have piped water hundreds of kilometres so that we can build cities in places where cities ought not to be built. We have extended people’s lifespan to twice that of those who lived 150 years ago.

As this happened, our sense of control over our environment became improbably swollen. Through the use of money and education, we gained a mistaken sense of being in control over life in general. We gradually felt no need for that ultimate guarantor of control: the idea of a God or religion. Confident in our own ability to protect ourselves against the slings and arrows of an uncontrollable universe, we retrenched this figure and placed our confidence in the strength of our civilisation project.

Science. Money. Education. These things would protect us.

Or not, as it turns out.

With much of the human population of our planet confined to house arrest to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and reading wildly contradictory information about the disease, we are adrift, lost and confused. Stripped of that sense of control that was so dear to us.

That idea of control was, of course, a delusion.

Eventually we all discover that we can’t control everything, whether it was a confrontation with a cancer beyond the grasp of medicine or a car accident that was no fault of anyone. But until that cruel and desperate point, we gloried in the idea that we were somehow protected and insulated by knowledge, planning, science and wealth. That idea is now gone. We find ourselves discovering what people living in the 16th century knew very well: we don’t really control very much at all.

As John Webster wrote in his five-part tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi (1623), “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and banded which way please them.”

Accepting this is hard for the modern mind, but by doing so, we can learn one of the most important lessons that life has to teach us. The reality is, and always has been, that we control very little. And only by accepting this can we see life for what it really is, and be equipped to deal with it. Sort of.

Perhaps this lesson is one of the things we can take out of this viral catastrophe.

John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa advertising agency.