Life, Death, and Our Shared Humanity

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
(John Donne)

Brazil, the country where I live, hit the sad mark of 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the weekend when I’m writing this column. It’s the 9th of August. I know this information will be out of date when I send this text to the editors, and even more when it’s published, but, still sometimes I
wonder if it actually matters: my country and so many others have reached a point where the death count doesn’t change the size of the tragedies anymore, and this, perhaps, is the biggest of them all. What to do when human lives, what we have of most precious, dissolve into faceless
numbers?

We might not have an answer, but, as always, literature may offer us some clues. This time, like many others, I found it in Svetlana Aleksiévitch’s books: she’s the 2015 Nobel Prize winner, and writes about the stories of common people who experienced key events of the Soviet history. In The unwomanly face of war, where she registers the memories of the women who lived and fought during World War II, she reflects: “I try to reduce the big history to a human scale to try to understand something. But it seems that, in this small territory that’s comfortable to look at — the space of a human soul — everything is yet more incomprehensible, less previsible than in history. I have in front of me tears and feelings that are alive. A face that is alive, that is human, crossed by shadows of pain and fear as we talk” (free translation). This excerpt always touches me: as a history enthusiast, the events I find myself studying once in a while take a whole new dimension when I stop to think that real people, with real lifes, hopes, fears and dreams were involved. And now, during this pandemic, when it’s so easy to be swallowed by data and news, I go back to Aleksiévitch’s words and try to never forget what those numbers really mean.

And, in the middle of all of this, literature (and arts, in general), have been a real life-saver for me. Not only because they provide some great moments going from distraction to reflection, but because they help me to better understand our shared humanity. What are stories but an exercise of empathy? We put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for four hundred pages or two hours and a half, and we laugh, cry, worry and sigh in relief for those people we will never know and often don’t even exist. We do this because we are human, and see a little of our humanity reflected in those works — we do this because humans have always been storytellers before anything else, and because narratives are the best way we have of understanding the world
around us. And when we lose sight of the stories that happen around us, of all of the pain and tragedies that a pandemic brings, and of the colossal loss any number of deaths represent, we lose a little of our shared humanity. I hear discussions about what the “ideal” number of obits would be, and the answer is none: and this applies to everything, not only to covid-19. Every life is of an incalculable worth, and their loss means a tragedy of its own. Take a moment of your day and read the stories of the frontline workers and of the victim’s families and friends, and you’ll understand.

I wished I could write about books, movies or even some event of my personal life that would be an interesting topic to this column. But when I sit down in front of the keyboard, or with pen and paper in my hands, I can’t think of anything else. Which, here between us, is not that bad. It’s important to take a time off to breathe and rest, but it’s also crucial to never lose sight of the reality around us. As fiction readers and writers, we are used to wandering among worlds that could be, but we should never forget the world that is: not only to imagine different futures and possibilities, but mostly because, before being readers, writers and anything else, we are human. I hope this column will work as a little reminder of it in such turbulent times.

May those who lost loved ones find peace and comfort, and may all of us who stay keep moving with courage and love. As Aleksiévitch reminds us: “there is only one way: to love the human being. Understand it through love.” May we never lose sight of that.