James Baldwin wrote in his brilliant long essay concerning racial disharmony in America The Fire Next Time of how if relatively conscious whites and relatively conscious blacks insist on creating the right sort in consciousness of others, and do not falter in their duty, the racial nightmare in our country might be abated. In other words, if people of both races would attempt to meet each other halfway in understanding the personal dynamics and history which has led to so much hatred and animosity, things might be genuinely changed. If not, as he put it in reference to a certain prophecy in the Bible which was sung by a slave, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
It seems now possible that we may be somehow dealing with “the coronavirus next time,” not as merely a result of racial disharmony, but in terms of something even much bigger. That is, the endless conflict, fragmentation, division, and recrimination which has been part of the social/political discourse both in our own country and also around the world for some time now. For it seems entirely possible that the close-minded, exclusionary hatred that has been part of so many people’s psyches may have somehow led to this worldwide plague that we are now all enduring; particularly if one believes that the inner state of one’s being can easily affect his/her physical health.
When I was twenty-nine years old, I was stricken with what amounted to a case of rheumatic fever, and I was of course very sick. I can remember that as I lay there moaning and groaning, I was also reading the poignant bestseller I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, written by Joanne Greenberg, about Deborah, a sixteen year old girl suffering from schizophrenia who was being treated by a caring, thoughtful therapist. In one short section of the book Deborah experiences a vision in which she is able to see a lump of coal being squeezed into a diamond, with an otherworldly voice telling her, “Deborah, this will be you.”
After going through the sort of difficult years in my twenties that a lot of people go through, I was able to identify with this sentiment; imagining my difficulties would result in me becoming a clearer, sharper person. Only there was a certain fallacy in my logic, which was believing that my difficulties were not of my own making, and were happening to me in part as a result of the actions of others. Of course the simple truth was that all of these difficulties, as the difficulties of all our lives are, were entirely the result of my own actions, and there was nobody else to blame for them except me.
And such is true of all of us, especially in terms of this particular moment in time, when it is easy to believe that the coronavirus is a plague that has beset us from some external source, rather than as something that might in fact be the result of our own making. Anybody who is familiar with either metaphysical speculation or physical heath related to the mind/body/spirit connection knows how closely connected that inner state of one’s being is to their physical health. And so it almost certainly is with the relationship between social thought and action on a mass scale and the physical well-being of peoples or countries at large. A crippled inner being often leads inevitably to certain physical maladies.
One thing the coronavirus has done is to help a number of us realize just how closely connected we all are. So even as the virus ends, perhaps that same sentiment can be carried over by many of us, and also by a media in this country who is often responsible for the conflict, division, and recrimination that now goes on all around us, to the point where people actually begin to listen to each other regardless of preconceived ideologies and beliefs. James Baldwin was right. If we all don’t start making more of an effort to get along with each other, it will almost certainly be another version of the fire next time.