Recently, we have had so many posts, articles and blogs reporting on corruption, floods and deaths we can be mired in despair. But in my 74th year, I look for the silver lining however dimly it may shine.
Cliches, which I used to scold students for using in their essays, now ring out the reassuring tone of customary wisdom: “hope springs eternal in the human heart.” I often pray that it does.
Perhaps even monsoon clouds, without denying the tragic consequences seasonal rains wreak on our fellow citizens, can bring an illumination. It makes us sit up to register climate change. Clogged drains and disappearing retention pools are no longer other people’s misfortunes. The water may inundate our own living rooms one day.
Do we learn to care more for our communities in this season of Covid darkness? I believe many of us would have reflected anew on John Donne’s oft-quoted reminder that “no man is an island”.
My title takes from the novel Love in The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I only draw one thread from his magnificent tapestry of themes. What I like is Marquez’s honest look at a divided society – divided by social class, by race and gender and not least, by age.
Love and hope which can unite us will not simply spring from the air but must be cultivated throughout the seasons of life. Age does not always yield kindness and wisdom, so we humbly learn from the young.
It is heartening to observe that, in this season of hard challenges, young people in Malaysia have taken clear responsibility to help those in need, across racial and religious boundaries.
After the floods in Malaysia, we read of multiracial youths helping to clean mosques, temples and other places of worship. Others rallied to show their anger at corruption, even though such actions mean risks.
Increasingly, it is quiet acts of love and caring that move me as when young people join soup kitchens, thus giving hope and returning dignity to the homeless. In street food distribution, they learn what cannot be fully learnt in the classroom.
But these acts have no effect on the politics of power, someone may say. Is this always and necessarily true? In analysing the African American writer Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I highlight the ‘political’ role of Angelou’s grandmother, who was not a member of any NGO or political group yet wielded her own ‘political’ influence. How, one may ask.
This uneducated old woman, by dint of hard work, opened a small store where in the early morning light, the cotton pickers preparing for a day of back-breaking labour could gather, buy some small item and be treated with dignity. In such spaces where a fragile self-esteem is born, future political power may be birthed.
Perhaps we really should pay attention to ‘power’ away from the halls of Parliament and honour such embryonic efforts by the citizens of any country. Like Maya Angelou, our own woman writer Fatimah Busu also explores the courage of village women in Kelantan who struggle to retain agency.
It was the thinker Fanon who tells us that very often, it is the so-called ordinary people whom we love to theorise about or advise or admonish, who have in fact “exceeded” us. With his use of the verb exceeded, Fanon refers to the people’s common sense, their own intelligent survival strategies which we may have dismissed as of no avail.
The Covid pandemic throws into sharp relief many sectors of society we may have ignored. The aged, the mentally and physically disabled who have no families, the homeless are around us. Do we care? Sadly, we often need the threat of disaster and death to make us pause.
The renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark reminds us that “suffering is the great equaliser”. The very rich, dying alone in a Covid ward, would probably give a million dollars to be able to see their loved ones once more. So too the penniless, who don’t even have a dollar to spare.
This season of darkness teaches us a new compassion as we see our common human needs. “I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society,” Mary Ellen Mark adds.
It gives me hope to see some of our younger Adun (state legislative assembly representatives) doing a great deal to help such groups who inhabit the fringes of society. For me, it does not matter what political party they belong to because it is the individual’s compassionate, dedicated acts I applaud.
Some of these representatives, very well educated, would have been well able to take up lucrative careers. Instead, they chose the path of service. Hope resides in such young folk.
In their Facebook posts, I see their care for their constituencies in valiant efforts at community building. In many of these well-run areas, people of all ages come together to brighten up community spaces with wall murals, convert dark alleys to cheerful spots for small gatherings with SOP (Covid protocols) and turn unused land into community gardens. Here, we find citizens of all races creating the ‘poetry’ of daily living.
In recording these activities, we give back to citizens the dignity of a history, a history perhaps more important than the endless power struggles in Halls of Power.
I would agree with Maya Angelou on caring communities so I quote her quite fully: “I am not sure if resilience is ever achieved alone… if we have someone who loves us – I don’t mean who indulges us, but who loves us enough to be on our side – then it is easier to grow resilience, to grow belief in self, to grow self-esteem, and it is self-esteem that allows a person to stand up.”
Angelou’s words on love brings me to the role of the family in this time of Covid darkness, which breeds anxiety and impatience. Working from home does not make it easy to have the relief of calming privacy or self-refreshing space unless you own a large house. Patience, learning to listen more than to speak, disciplining oneself to hear other viewpoints – these are not easy qualities but they are essential when we love. After decades of teaching, I am still learning attentive listening.
The maxim that “children should be seen and not heard” no longer helps. Children are as vulnerable to anxiety as adults, arguably more so. One must give children time and space to voice their thoughts and feelings. Seeing my young friends who are parents listen patiently to their children gives me hope.
In some families, financial need, newly experienced when breadwinners lost jobs, creates added tension. Let us be kind and not contemptuous. Try not to play the blame game and accuse a deflated man or woman, now newly unemployed, of incompetence or a lack of competitive energy. Encourage, uphold and be supportive. Beyond family, friends can do much to uplift each other.
Like candles in the darkness of Covid, acts of kindness brighten the pall around us all. A cafe donates packets of nasi lemak and loaves of bread to feed the hungry. People, after being retrenched, who set up food trucks to sell delicious dishes, often give food to the poor around them. These acts warm the cockles of my heart as they are done without fanfare, without an entourage of photographers and newspaper reporters.
In this climate of uncertainty, some young people do leave Malaysia or plan on leaving but many choose to stay or to return. Some may feel they have to leave a ‘sinking ship’ but many do remain to shore up that ship, to give back to the land of their birth. Enshrined in our national anthem are the memorable words “tanah tumpahnya darahku”, reminding all of us that it was in this beloved land that our foetal blood was shed.
Let us come together as ONE to build a better future where genuine democracy, justice, equity, compassion are like beacons in the dark. Even if the gritty reality is that paradise may not be entirely regained, we continue to soldier on, fuelled by hope and energised by love. We shall not use slogans like “keluarga Malaysia” (Malaysian family) mindlessly but will put our heart and mind, even our soul, into daily acts of kindness and so chisel out a better MALAYSIA.