A Metaphor in a Shipment of Masks: “We Are Waves of the Same Sea”
The “narrative collapse” attending the coronavirus as this “tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometres in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code” leapfrogs around the world could be seized as an opportunity to build a better human society, and to restore the non-human one—a small moment of opportunity for hope amid the grief, fear, and economic upheaval, writes Future Crunch.
“Last week, a large consignment of crates arrived in Italy, addressed to the country’s Civil Protection Department, from the consumer electronics giant, Xiaomi,” the Australia-based science blog wrote March 19. “Inside were tens of thousands of FFP3 face masks for Italy’s health care workers, a ‘token of gratitude to the Italian people’ for making their workers feel so welcome when the Chinese company opened its first European offices in 2018’.”
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Inside each of the crates was a message, originally attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca:
“We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”
The heartfelt message from China to Italy highlighted the powerful metaphor intrinsic to the cargo, Future Crunch writes.
“Masks are a good symbol for this current moment in time. They arrive via planes and container ships, making their way to the front lines via a global trade network that seemed inevitable, until it wasn’t.” News outlets deploy them “as symbols of fear and uncertainty”, illustrating stories “accompanied by a dizzying storm of numbers, figures, casualties, and infection rates, which inevitably include some aspect of the national interest.” But there is a counter-narrative, as well, one that points to the mask as representing “a world all in action at once, waves of the same sea, united against a common threat”.
Masks work the same on every human—and, more, they unify our features, “erasing the differences of skin colour or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news,” Future Crunch notes. Which makes COVID-19 a moment for us all to examine, and perhaps overcome, those conditioned responses.
The pandemic is a moment of “narrative collapse,” added social commentator Venkatesh Rao, a surreal event that leaves everyone glued to the screen, “tracking the rawest information they have access to, rather than the narrative that most efficiently sustains their reality.” Citing Rao’s blog, Future Crunch says that discomfort creates moments in which “everyone temporarily abandons attempts to reach narrative consensus, even within their smallest default groups, such as family”. That, in turn, creates the opportunity for us to learn to be comfortable with sitting “in this space of not knowing”.
Such uncertainty never comes easy. “We’re used to having answers,” the authors note. We spend hours scrolling through our feeds, trying to find someone who can tell us when it will end, when life will go back to normal, and when we can get back to the way things used to be.” But already, the narrative collapse in the present moment is beginning to shift perspectives. After a decade of being “hammered” by ignorant and divisive populists, Future Crunch states, society is once again beginning to listen to scientists, who have become “our main line of defence”.
As we adopt our fervent (re)attachment to scientific principles, we should also seize this long moment to “take a long hard look at how we’re operating as a global society,” the authors add. They see an opportunity to awaken to the knowledge that “the industrial economy we’ve always taken for granted is killing us,” and that “our antiquated, hidebound, unloved governments are no longer up to the job of coping with the kinds of challenges that face us in the 21st century.”
This kind of understanding could lead to leaders with “better ideas, safety nets, and protection for working people in societies with rising inequality, national health care systems that cover the entire population, public schools that train students to think both deeply and flexibly, and much more.”
Whatever we, you, and I do, the post concludes, “don’t let the media superimpose narrative.” Rather, as we sit at home, we should keep just one story with us—the story contained in Seneca’s words, delivered from China to Italy in a box of masks: “We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”