SARS, Natural and Man-Made Disasters, and Morale

Xian Ziyi

PureInsight | July 14, 2003

[] When I was very little, my dad would tell me that man is the greatest creature of all, that man is the most intelligent creature, that there is no mountain higher than man's level of intelligence and that man would triumph over nature, and so on. I was very proud of being a human being, and I especially marveled at the human intellect as manifested in the rapid technological developments of recent years.

However, the recent SARS epidemic puzzled me. Why has mankind, the most intelligent species on earth, suddenly becomes so fragile in the face of a natural disaster? Why doesn't the "advanced technology" that mankind is so proud of stand a chance in combating nature? It only takes something as small as the SARS virus to stir up the whole world and make everyone panic. Everyone finds himself in danger under the threat of the SARS virus. Are humans truly as great as we boast? Why do I see only immense sorrow and helplessness in people when SARS is upon us?

I had to learn Chinese calligraphy when I was young. The first phrase that the calligraphy teacher asked us to write was: "A true gentleman should constantly strive to improve himself like the heavens, which are constantly in motion" (from "The First Diagram" or "The Qian Diagram" in The Book of Changes). This phrase from The Book of Changes was too sophisticated for the taste of a child. Therefore, I misunderstood the meaning as, "Since heaven has given man the most honorable responsibilities on earth, man proves himself worthy of these responsibilities through his constant effort without an idle moment." Later I had the opportunity to acquire an explanation from a Chinese scholar. His understanding of the First Diagram is: "The universe runs by its own law. Only when man acts in accord with the heavenly law can man lead a sustainable life on earth."

There is an English proverb that roughly means: "Do not rush forward. Take a break from time to time to examine whether the footsteps on the path are straight. Take a break and build up the strength for the remaining journey." Likewise, it's high time we examined the path that humankind has walked! With the progress in science and technology, there has been an increased distancing between people. Today, people work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and they have become increasingly busy and standoffish and decreasingly amiable and trusting of one another. All kinds of modern fashion trends emerge like spring bamboo shoots. Human fashion styles and hairstyles have become bizarre, or appalling, to be more specific. Yet, we call it "cool." Never before has man lived so busily and wearily.

I truly long for a lifestyle like that in ancient Chinese societies. I admire the broad breadth of mind of Chinese scholars and writers, the majestic generosity of ancient Chinese emperors, and the take-your-time attitude of ancient Chinese peasants. All the good traditional values of the old societies that I admired have slowly eroded with the advent of modern science, upon which we continue to become increasingly dependent. Every time I talked about the ancient Chinese lifestyle I yearn for, my friends would make sneering comments: "Don't be silly! All the nonsense with pastoral life! Would you rather be herding cattle and plowing rice patties all day long? In the ancient times, there were no such things as cars. If you wanted to go somewhere, it'd surely be a heavy toll on your legs!" I fell silent. I felt that we humans have become increasingly alienated from our true nature and that our advanced technology has been destroying our morals. Isn't that the truth? Isn't it true that we live in a world full of wars, pestilence and chaos?

That's enough of a digression. What on earth should we do about this SARS epidemic? Should we wait for scientists to develop a vaccine? Scientists have found the SARS virus to be constantly mutating. Should we count on science as our last hope?

I think that it is high time for everyone to sit down and reflect upon the SARS epidemic because everyone is part of this SARS epidemic crisis, and anyone could fall prey to the SARS virus at any time. The attack of the SARS virus plays a pivotal role in the future of China. We should ask ourselves a question: How should we as individuals respond to the SARS epidemic? How do we Chinese people survive this disaster?

Although I live overseas, my heart is with my friends and family in my hometown in China all the time. Now that SARS has covered China, I have become all the more concerned for their safety. One morning I woke up very early, so I took the opportunity to call my best friend from middle school and high school. She is currently a junior in college. I learned from the online new reports that all high schools in China are closed so I figured the colleges might be closed, too, and she should be at home right now.

The call went through immediately and her older sister picked up the phone. When she recognized my voice, she was overwhelmed with joy. She told me that my best friend is staying on campus because the college decided to confine all students on campus. It is likely that she won't even get a chance to spend her summer at home. I told her sister that it was equally pleasant to chat with her and that I wanted to call her because I was very worried about her. I added, "With the SARS epidemic so rampant in China, I could not begin to imagine how your family is doing." Her sister said, "We are OK compared to other regions. There hasn't been much change here. Our family is doing well." I began to feel a bit relieved after her sister's reassurance.

Then out of the blue her sister asked, "Can I share something with you? You may be more knowledgeable about this since you are studying abroad. Tell me if you think I am being superstitious." Her words certainly stirred up my curiosity, so I said, "Of course." "My parents have always told us that the spring thunder is an omen. Well, for the past few years there has always been thunder in the spring. So, many old folks here keep saying that something extremely bad is going to happen. I gathered that spring thunder must be a sign of heavenly rage. It has become a very popular rumor. I am not sure whether this is superstition, but I do trust in older people's experience and wisdom. What do you think?"

Her remarks took me by surprise. I had expected that everyone in China would be busy discussing how to strengthen their resistance against viruses, busy cautioning each other on wearing masks, or busy discussing other SARS prevention tips. I had not expected that she would be paying attention to warning signs from nature. After a brief pause, I said to her, "I wouldn't call it superstition. I have read in many books that the spring thunder is indeed an omen. Besides, I have grown to appreciate the truth in many Chinese proverbs, folk cultures and ancient legends. Nowadays, I often spend my leisure time researching ancient Chinese culture because I have learned that the ancient Chinese culture is the most profound culture of all!" "I think so too!," she agreed wholeheartedly and then added, "That is my point, exactly. To be honest with you, I was so scared of SARS at first that I did not know what to do. The SARS epidemic is as dreadful as a plague. Although the SARS epidemic is not as widespread here as in other regions, I was on the edge of my seat all day long until one day my mom said to me, 'What's to be afraid of! If you haven't done anything bad, you wouldn't be scared a bit even if a ghost knocked on your door at night. If you haven't done anything that violated your conscience, you should not fear any natural or man-made disasters!' That was when I began to think to myself, 'That is right. Instead of worrying my head off all day long, I'd much rather examine my past and live positively!'"

Her words have certainly given me inspiration. It was truly precious that she gave herself spiritual strength, a weapon that no one could give her, to combat the SARS virus. I said encouragingly to her, "I am so happy that you have such a positive attitude. We must not panic in face of disasters. Our spiritual strength should be the first frontier in the battle against the SARS virus."

After I finished the telephone conversation with my best friend's sister, I suddenly realized one thing: It is most foolish to panic, to fear, or to seek a safe place to hide ourselves. What we need the most right now is to stay calm and reflect upon ourselves. We all know the famous Chinese story where Liu Bang strategically crushed the morale of his enemy by surrounding them with songs from their hometown in order to make them homesick before their final battle. The moral of the story is that one surrenders when his morale surrenders. When one's morale surrenders, one is likely to scare oneself about any type of disease, even if one is not infected with SARS. My point is that as long as you haven't done anything bad and you have always done things according to your conscience, you should not fear anything!

I remember part of the lyrics of a song: "May the time come when each day is filled with love. May the smiles and singing of the children last forever…." We sincerely hope that the Chinese people will soon overcome the SARS epidemic and that the days when "the smiles and singing of the children last forever" will not be far away.

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