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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, School of Education and Psychology

The pandemic as a humbling cure

Wed, 17 Jun 2020 09:58:00 +0000 Published in El Norte de Castilla and Alto Aragón Newspaper

When a Roman general paraded victoriously through Rome in his chariot at the head of a centuria, a humble slave held the laurel wreath above his head, while whispering in his ear repeatedly "memento mori", a Latin expression meaning "remember that you will die". These words or their equivalent, "remember that you are only a man," appealed to the duty of behaving like a mortal being.

The victor was not to forget the limitations of human nature (along with those of law and custom), which prevented him from becoming a God. It was a preventive resource closely related to the Aristotelian idea that man is a contingent being. Aristotle opposed contingency to necessity.

For Thomas Aquinas, contingent being (man) is opposed to necessary being (God). The contingent being is that which is not by itself, but by another yes. The existence of God is necessary, but the existence of man is not.

I think that it would be good for today's great achievers, for some of those idolized by the masses in the musical, sports and political fields, to whisper "memento mori" in their ears after each success or victory, both as professionals and as people. It would help them not to think they are better than anyone else, to be more aware of their shortcomings and of the need to continue learning, to avoid arrogance and vanity. By being more aware of their own limits, they would better accept the inevitable contradictions that exist in every human life and avoid the resulting personal frustrations.

Among the few cases I know of people who have had a "memento mori" whisperer is Rafa Nadal. When he won his first major degree scroll, the Spanish junior championship, his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, took a piece of paper out of his pocket and read to him, one by one, the list of previous professional tennis players who had won everything, so that he would realize that nobody remembered them anymore. After each of the subsequent titles Toni has been repeating to him: "you're just a guy who passes a ball over a network. Don't ever forget that".

The evil of egolatry, in a way, we can all have it. But nature, which is wise, periodically reveals to us that we are an expendable species, thus demystifying our absurd pride as a privileged species. This revelation often takes the form of a natural catastrophe.

Before covid-19, the pride of living in the society of knowledge and welfare made us believe that we were the owners of an earthly paradise and that everything was under control. But once again, a natural catastrophe has opened our eyes and prompted us to set foot on solid ground; it has called into question our values and our priorities, it has revealed to us that despite scientific and technical progress, the man of the 21st century is very vulnerable.

The covid-19 pandemic has been a "memento mori" that has given us a humility cure. Humility is a human virtue attributed to those who have developed an awareness of their own limitations and weaknesses and act accordingly.

The fascination with technical progress has made us forget the primacy of humanistic, moral and religious values, and with it, the loss of the meaning of life and the possibility of being happy. The spectacular spread of the virus throughout the planet is giving rise to a globalization of suffering, making health the priority.

Daniel Innerarity states that "an interdependent world means contagious and unprotected. Problems spread and affect us all. It is a world in which we can no longer ignore ourselves, where inattention to the miseries of others does not protect us from their influence on us. Indifference is not possible, neither materially nor ethically. The idea of interdependence means precisely that we all depend on each other".

These wise words contain both the problem core topic (the contagion of the undesirable), and its possible solution (the solidary search for a good that is considered common).