The Elephant in the COVID-19 Room: A Heretical Inquiry into the Heart of Death
- By Professor Kriben Pillay
I do not expect this to be published widely because this inquiry dares to point out the elephant in the room of the COVID-19 pandemic; our terrifying fear of death. If one examines all that has been written about the pandemic, there is almost nothing about the fact of death and how to embrace it, and yet our responses to COVID-19, worldwide, are actually about death, or rather, our frenetic attempts to avoid it. (This inquiry is not about wanting physical death, or doing nothing to protect the physical organism; it is about the lack of psychological clarity and fear, which, ironically, promote physical and mental suffering in insidious ways).
So, before you press the “dislike” button, consider this: We, and our leaders – scientific, educational and political – make decisions that are deeply informed by our own fears. And there are two layers of death. The death of the physical organism may actually be the least of our worries (I write this from personal experience, having had two very close encounters with death); it is the psychological death that so scares us – our self-images of who I think I am, embedded as they are in various layers of psycho-social-cultural identities.
But these identities are fictions; we do not come into the world with anything but a physical body with certain gender and racial features. The rest, that we are now so terrified of losing, is acquired. The parable of the Garden of Eden makes sense now; the apple of knowledge – who I think I am – is the loss of my expansive innocence. This limitless awareness of who I really am has become contracted into layers of who I fundamentally am not. I am only superficially the social roles I play, or the discrete inner person that I take myself to be, clothed in these outer garments. However, everything in life has helped build this illusion of being a separate person; an illusion that I am now so fearful of losing. Therefore, the fear and terror is big; very, very big.
The physical organism is programmed to avoid pain, but it is actually burdened by the psychological fears that we carry. That is why we long for the peace of deep sleep when the psychological centre, the “me”, so fearful of so many kinds of death, falls away for a time.
I assert that we cannot say that we are living a full, free life, if we are always avoiding the fact of death, especially of the psychological kind. So, we largely live a life of pseudo freedoms; freedoms that centre on me, the psychological self that is ever accumulating, materially and psychologically, to stave off being no one, very often at the expense of someone else. In many leaders, we can see the consequences – dysfunctional, absencing behaviours – but we are all part of this delusion, until we squarely face the actuality of death. This is not a matter of blame; it is apparently how we have evolved, but now we are being asked to make a dramatic leap in the transformation of our consciousness.
When clarity dawns, we then understand deeply why the philosopher Socrates chose to drink poison in prison, rather than flee into exile when he was given the opportunity. Because clarity breaks the illusion of death, and therefore the suffocating fear. However, this dissolution of the illusion is not replaced by fantasies of an afterlife; it is the simple recognition (where the word “recognise” means to see again), that who we really are has never, ever, been separate from Life. And Life never dies. This is echoed in all the wisdom traditions, but we have a dominant culture that has closed itself off to that insight, and now, in this pandemic, we are paying the price.
Professor Kriben Pillay is the former Dean of Teaching and Learning in the College of Law and Management Studies and an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at UKZN, where his research is on the brain, illusion and consciousness in leadership. He is a writer across many genres; his poems and short stories appear in many South African anthologies and he has recently contributed a chapter on leadership in the book, Large Scale Systemic Change, and a chapter titled The Illusion of Solid and Separate Things: Troublesome Knowledge and the Curriculum in the book Disrupting Higher Education: Undoing Cognitive Damage. His recent book is The Survivalists: Visionary leadership for South Africa’s marginalised entrepreneurs – The Story of IBEC. He is currently writing a self-study on awakening.