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The Lockdown Is Going Soon, But The Virus Isn't; We Might As Well Rebuild Our Meaningplex

The new world we are headed to isn’t too different from the world we grew up in, but like it happens in the alternate universes that intriguing fantasy fiction sprouts from, one little quirk has been introduced to make things interesting – humans here are allowed to be just human, and not superbeings, as is our wont.

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This has been a forced pause. Like most impositions, this one too is being resented but not being outraged against. You need someone despicable to direct your outrage at. But there is none of the kind here; just a virus, busy being a virus.

As we haven’t felt much hatred towards it, we have gotten busy getting to know this new arrival without much malice; and have also gotten down to reorganising our lives knowing that the virus isn’t going away in a hurry.

We are all in transit. Currently on a one-way bridge between two worlds. All seven and a half billion of us have been pushed on to it by an insignificant sized microorganism, and that is something we are struggling to come to terms with. We are, after all, the superbeings who run the Earth.

The new world we are headed to isn’t too different from the world we grew up in, but like it happens in the alternate universes that intriguing fantasy fiction sprouts from, one little quirk has been introduced to make things interesting – humans here are allowed to be just human, and not superbeings, as is our wont.

That shouldn’t be tough, right? We just have to be us. There is a minor issue though, we have too many modern definitions of what it means to be human going around. And to add to the challenge, our favourite definitions and nature’s definition don’t match.

Who caused the mismatch? Not nature, not our fellow earthlings, perhaps unwittingly (and in many ways deliberately) we did as we evolved and acquired sophistication. Our definitions come from our cultures. Nature is what we were born to and culture is what we crafted. Through generations of not just everyday being, doing and relating, but also living through pandemics and phases of vibrancy; through wars and revolutions.

We live in our meaningplex

Our culture is our life organising system, our meaningplex – a complex yet coherent matrix of meanings, complete with its values, norms and artefacts.

It is our interpretation of reality. Often incongruent with nature’s interpretation of it, but we haven’t let that bother us. In our usual self-entitled way, we have decided that we get to decide the kind of reality nature and all her other beings must live in.

We have taken our meaningplex too for granted for too long for us to notice its flaws that have now begun to show. Its foundations suddenly seem unsure. This is forcing us to critically examine the grand structure itself.

We’re questioning our own mental models. We’re also readily indulging in thoughts and activities that we have been dismissing as impractical all our lives. Some of us are rather chuffed with our newly discovered talents.

How about we first deconstruct our world to reconstruct it?

While we might be waiting to get back to many of our usual ways as soon as we can, this pause has led us to think broader and deeper; and could leave our lives altered in ways we have never imagined. It is a rare opportunity for us humans to reconnect with our humanness and to reconstruct our lives grounds up.

Times like this allow us the license to challenge even the unchallengeable. Some wisdom that has been handed down to us as facts and truths, we now realise, was really just opinions.

It is time for us to ask ourselves questions that will help us separate the true-essential from the felt-essential. Even mundane questions like, ‘is physically lugging our whole body to work every day, essential?’ would lead to interesting possibilities.

Organising our lives around our true essentials

We have configured our lives to a synthetic world that follows a pace, scale and character that is hardly human anymore.

If we are reconstructing our world, why not reintegrate it with nature? As nature’s beings, we are today the most precariously dependent ones. We have lost the ability to be led by our instincts. For almost everything, we need our artificial system that thrives by keeping us dependent on itself. And it is an unhealthy dependence.

A months-old baby monkey knows which fruit to eat and when, and in comparison a human baby even at 40 is lost without help from a nutritionist or an app. Very few urban people in the world today have the natural human ability to engage with nature directly for accessing essentials required to survive, the way it was supposed to be.

Let’s look at two examples of our old world’s felt-essentials – fighting BO, and schools.

Fighting BO

Being locked down at home alone, we have been using far less deodorant, and surprisingly not missing it much. How essential is it for us to mask our natural human smell all the time – waking hours and sleeping? Given that the world spends USD 80 billion on deodorants and antiperspirants every year, it must be super essential!

If we were to map this product on the human evolution timeline, it would look too trifling to be called an essential - the first deodorant was trademarked in 1888. For a long time even after this product was introduced people felt (or knew?) that it was unnecessary, unhealthy or both

Think about it, in a world where all stink, no one smells.

And this is a product that exploits our insecurity – ‘your natural human smell is offensive, it will come in the way of your success’ is what we have been made to believe. Why in the world have we been supporting an industry that thrives by keeping us self-worth deficient?

Back to school?

School is a manmade social artefact that we believe is essential to our lives. The question is, ‘is coercing and bribing children through pedantic curriculums that focus more on forced teaching than natural curiosity led learning, essential?’.

We are the only species that pushes its little ones into boxes, to artificially induce into them motivation and knowledge in order to prepare them for a certain future we have naïvely predicted for them - a world that runs not by ecology, but the economy. Where growing up to be a factor-of-production and a unit-of-consumption is essential, and being part of nature’s web of life, optional.

Disposable ‘essentials’

Here’s a broader (and deeper) question worth asking today – ‘If everyday living could nourish us enough physically, mentally and morally, would we really need artificial supplements like gyms, schools and temples?’

There is a lot of dispensable old-world stuff we needn’t carry with us into the new world.

Not just things, but also habits, attitudes and belief systems. We have been cultivating these for years because we were sure these were essential for us to succeed; aggressively competing with each other to earn trappings that feel non-essential, even vain, in hindsight. And what’s indefensible is that we have been chasing the stuff at the cost of all that is truly essential.

It won’t be easy for us to let go, we will do our best to hold on to the old-world felt-essentials. Just look at what we have begun doing with schools since the lockdown. We are clumsily mimicking the flawed factory model schooling system using our newfangled digital tools and are waiting to push our little ones back on to the assembly line.

But shed the ‘precious’ baggage we must. Perhaps we need to get old-world poor before we can get new-world rich.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Reva Malik

Reva’s area of work and interest is in developing methodologies and processes that are inspired by natural systems. She has been involved in initiatives on rethinking and re-envisioning learning spaces; research and revival of natural/ indigenous processes of knowing and learning and looking at learning beyond educational institutions and curriculums. She draws her learnings from having worked in the education sector, in urban and rural spaces as well as her ongoing study and practice in process work.

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Ranjan Malik .

Ranjan has spent significant time studying and working on how systems work; especially sociocultural systems. First a decade in the communication industry and then a decade and a half as an innovation speaker, writer and facilitator. He has created methodologies that help not just decode and map the hidden structures and patterns in a system but also design and reimagine them. Besides innovation, he has a keen interest in the area of design and sits on Design Award juries. He has been expressing his point of view through talks and keynotes; and also articles in various publications. He can be reached at [email protected]

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