One of the positive impacts of the Covid 19 lockdowns has been what is called the Great Human Pause. On the one hand, as human movement became limited, nature was able to breathe again, wild animals explored empty urban spaces and air quality improved. Environmentalists have renewed their efforts to find an equitable balance between the needs of people and nature.
Another, more unexpected, consequence has been the opportunity for people, forced to stay indoors, to re-examine their own lives, values and social relationships. Since it has affected all the nations of the world rather than just an obscure part of the world, it allows a unique opportunity to decide on what fundamental changes can be made in a post-Covid world. The world is at a crossroads.
It is easy to empathise with Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not taken:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
“I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is presented again and again with choices, but he always makes the wrong choice, leading to his tragic end.
In 2008, Detective Kim Bogucki of the Seattle Police Department initiated the ‘If Project.’ Inmates of women’s prisons were asked “If there were something somebody could have said or done to change the path that led you here, what would it be?” The intention was to help young girls, potential offenders, make wiser choices. As a student, Laila Pathan, conducted a study for the ‘If Project’ in Karachi Jail. In her interviews, as in Bogucki’s , the women prisoners, for the first time, realised they could have chosen another way.
Martin Luther King Jr. had a speech prepared, but when Mahalia Jackson called out “tell ‘em about the dream”, he made an intuitive decision and spoke spontaneously starting with “ I have a dream”, which had a lasting impact on the US Civil Rights movement.
The Trojans lost the 10-year war with the Greeks when they chose to accept Odysseus’s gift of a large wooden horse, that had 30 soldiers hidden inside. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 when East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski, misread the written instructions he was given. History is filled with decisions that changed the tide of events.
In everyday life, many of us find ourselves at a crossroads — decisions about jobs, careers, marriage, migration, education and investments. Gauguin left his family and job as a stockbroker, to become an artist. Degas and Cezanne both dropped out of Law College.
Crossroads often have a spiritual symbolism. Robert Johnson’s 1936 Crossroad Blues inspired generations of musicians. A growing number of art and literary events are titled ‘Crossroads’, suggesting the exchange of ideas or crossing boundaries.
Crossroads are also viewed as mysterious and dangerous. In folk magic it is a paranormal space between the worlds, where demons dwell. The Greeks placed shrines to Hecate, queen of the witches, there. In England, suicides and criminals were buried at crossroads. Conversely, in Japan, crossroads symbolise joining rather than division, and are a symbol of fertility.
The fear and attraction of crossroads is closely linked with destiny. Which road is full of promise and which leads to loss? How can we be sure we choose wisely?
Crossroads are a human construct, directing us to a finite number of choices. Nature‘s way is a network of possibilities. Animals and birds use a variety of mechanisms — the earth’s electromagnetic field, the sun, the moon, smell, ocean currents and, most significantly, communicating with each other. Significant journeys are made collectively and not by individuals. For humans, the burden of choice need not be shouldered by an individual. Choice evolves from instincts informed by collective social wisdom and sets off infinite ripples of change.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 27th, 2020