In his Quarantine Monologue, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel made a startling remark. He said that an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building was approaching the earth over the weekend, and “who knows, maybe we will get lucky and it will hit us”.
Was it an expression of world weariness? World weary and an American? That is not normal! They would turn world weary philosophies into life affirming ones: you just have to hear what Richard Gere says about Buddhism which he claims to follow. Kimmel’s was more likely an expression of frustration: being fed up with the problems mounting relentlessly upon the US as a completely dysfunctional leadership ignores all expectations of sobriety, wisdom and sensitivity. The President refuses to acknowledge the pain and suffering among his people caused by the virus, unemployment, police brutality, racism…. He threatens to set the army on his own people. There is no empathy.
Back home in India, even as the poor continue to undergo unspeakable hardship, even as the exodus of hungry migrant workers’ continues in an Indian summer, another horrendous, shameful tragedy came to light.
Images of a pregnant elephant standing in water for two days – an abnormal act by any standards – shook us all. What pain was she in that she stood in the water until she died. That image set this apart from other acts of cruelty to animals. We don’t see behavior that screams out their pain. Here the act of quietly standing in the water, refusing to budge and just dying – that was her scream and we aren’t able to shut it out.
I grieve and I am in pain. Is this normal? I wonder.
As I think about the elephant’s pain, bewilderment and helplessness, not to speak of the baby in her womb, I struggle for meaning, to retain hope.
That this also turned into a political blame game is beyond belief. And then there is outrage that the elephant tragedy has elicited more reactions from celebrities than the deaths of migrants. That maybe true. Perhaps we, in India, are inured to the suffering of the poor. Why did the whole nation rise up at the elephant tragedy? Was it because it was a wild and beautiful thing, having nothing to do with the vile world of men? Was it because of the unimaginable, deliberate cruelty of human agency that rendered her in excruciating pain, unable to feed or drink water for weeks until she collapsed of starvation? Was it because she was pregnant? Maybe it is selective outrage; but the images haunt and the pain does not go away.
And, we know that this news cycle will also dissipate, that men, women, and children will continue to be brutalized by the powerful and that animals will continue to be tortured, have their mouths blown away.
I thought of the Bodhisattva who, in many Jataka tales, is a noble elephant. In one such tale, a human, lost in the forest, is offered shelter by the elephant. The man comes back again and again pleading poverty to ask of the elephant a bit of his tusks. The noble elephant agrees each time until one day the human pulls both the tusks out from their roots, leaving the elephant injured and dying.
Reading this story as a child I thought it was just that – a story, an unlikely, improbable story.
Despite everything man is capable of – thinking, feeling, empathy, loving, birthing, singing, dancing, painting – how are we capable of such cruelty? What are we? All the philosophers who pondered over the good do not explain this. With what hope do we face tomorrow, with what joy in our hearts do we go on when this streak of unspeakable cruelty lies in us?
I am weary and ready for the asteroid.