The Lesson—Again—is Humility

“The present time has one advantage over every other—it is our own.” (Charles Caleb Colton)

I keep hearing people say that there’s a lesson in all of this; that we have something to learn from this pandemic. Some say it will remind us of what really matters in life, while others believe it will forever change the way we conduct business and commerce—and that we’ll be better prepared for the next big outbreak. But I’m not convinced. To be honest, I’m not even convinced that these are the lessons we need right now.

If you ask me, there is only one lesson that really matters in all of this. The lesson of COVID-19 is—simply—that we are vulnerable. The lesson is that we are not the kings of this mountain, nor are we the keepers of our own fate. We are but humans, as mortal (and fragile) as we’ve always been. And so the lesson is, once again, humility. But it is not the personal, self-effacing kind of humility I usually write about. In this case, I’m referring to a collective humility; to a communal form of modesty, a tribal humbleness; and perhaps a species-level temperance, too (it’s about time we sobered up about a few things).

Sigmund Freud once noted that there were two major events in the history of humankind that served as major blows to its collective ego—and to its tribal narcissism (he actually borrowed the idea from Emil du Bois-Reymond, but Freud summed it up nicely): “The first was when [humanity] realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries.”

So the first blow, then, was the realization that we are in fact not the centre of this solar system—or the universe, for that matter. And the second came with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the realization that human beings are descended from other species and not the results of divine creation. We would be remiss to take either for granted—these were monumental and extremely humbling milestones in the history of our species, and they should be valued as such (revered, even).

Dr. Genevieve Guenther, lecturer and climate change activist, recently suggested that climate change is the third major blow to our collective ego. As she so eloquently stated in a recent Scientific American article (which you can read here), “Climate change exposes this imagined future [of ever more prosperity and freedom] to be a profound illusion. It shows that in geological time and space, we have not transcended our materiality at all. We are fully embedded in and intertwined with Earth’s planetary systems as a species.” Alas, “No longer under our foot, nature has encompassed us all along.” Climate change is (or should be) humbling because it highlights our species’ inability to completely escape the bounds and limits of the natural world. We do not exist apart from nature, nor do we exist above it.

So it seems that we are not quite as special as we would like to believe. In addition to being just another iteration of ape living on a random planet at the centre of nothing, we in fact do not reign over nature. We do not command her, nor do we fully understand her. Yet our romanticized relationship with her is almost second “nature” to us. We proudly (and arrogantly) bask in the glory of our species’ special status, but it’s all an illusion. It always has been.

I agree with Guenther’s suggestion that climate change may be the ultimate antidote to humanity’s incessant self-aggrandizement, but unfortunately, many people still refuse to see it. It is still too big and distant for many to grasp, and our collective ego is fragile. But this pandemic is different; it’s simpler, it’s closer to home, and it’s easier to see. It is a far more obvious and salient reminder of our species’ vulnerability. Not only does it remind us of our inability to completely control nature (however arrogantly we may try), but it further tells of the extent to which natural systems will wreak havoc on our mere mortal lives, without a purpose or care in the world. And yet in reality, the threat of COVID-19 pales in comparison to that of climate change, or the multitude of threats that stem from climate change. If we were to estimate the extent of our true subservience to nature, we would be inclined to take this current threat and multiply it by 1000—if only to try and grasp the threat that lies ahead, and if only to try and grasp the lack of control we have over the world around us. The ultimate lesson to be gained from COVID-19 is the same lesson that lies at the heart of climate change, should we have the modesty—and honesty—to look. The ultimate lesson is one of humility before nature.

“They stood there, King of the Hill, Top of the Heap, Ruler of All They Surveyed, Unimpeachable Monarchs and Presidents, trying to understand what it meant to own a world and how big a world really was.” (Ray Bradbury)

There is bravery in being modest, and strength in being humble, especially in times like these. Find it in yourself, and kneel before that which humbles you; or deny it—the choice is yours. This pandemic will pass, and we will be confronted once again with the mammoth threat that remains: the impending collapse of the natural world as we know it. It should be as humbling as it is daunting; abasing as it is confronting, but only if we face it head on. The world is what it is, after all; nature is what it is. And we are what we are: just another iteration of ape, located at the centre of nothing, interacting with our environment in a delicate and complex exchange (as all living things do), but in ways that now beg for greater responsibility and compassion from us—and for greater humility.

In this crisis and the next; in this crisis and THE crisis of all crises, the lesson is humility. Again and again, it’s humility.

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