The geometry of life

“Life is merely a fracas on an unmapped terrain, and the universe a geometry stricken with epilepsy.” – Emily Cioran.

The world as we know it has gone crazy. I have lived over half a century, travelled to more than 50 nations, met many amazing people, and been involved in some interesting adventures, and yet, I have never witnessed the madness of our day. At the time of writing this column, I had to queue for toilet paper, for the very first time, mind you. No, this was not in a faraway under-developed land, this was just a few miles north of London. I also read a story about people in the United States buying up guns and ammunition. I know that toilet paper is being rationed. It has become a premium commodity, but I am prepared to give mine up rather than take the risk of being shot.

COVID-19, the virus without a brain, has confounded the wisdom of our age and wreaked havoc within our world. Scientists, politicians, and economists, our world’s greatest minds are being confounded by a spineless microbe filled with ambition. This coronavirus, birthed on distant shores, has taken over the global agenda, promoting fear in the midst of uncertainty. Markets are melting, hospitals are being overwhelmed, businesses are collapsing, and people are afraid.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, sums up the situation best: “I did not know then that this is what life is – just when you master the geometry of one world, it slips away, and suddenly again, you’re swarmed by strange shapes and impossible angles.”

This is the “geometry of life”, that change is inherent to our world. We must accept it without fear, and that while we cannot control what others do, or events outside of our realm, we have full control and responsibility over our response, our actions. It is that which defines who we are and what we do under pressure.

It is at times like these that heroes rise, and societies evolve, civilisations are created and justified. It is when people learn to live for a cause greater than themselves, when the human spirit rises. And yes, we may have to learn to share everything down to the soft and quilted rolls.

In sociology, it is believed that ‘no man is an island’, that we were made to live in community, that communities are meant to be diverse, and that it is what makes them so amazing. As an introvert, I sometimes struggle with this truism and my wonderful wife Tracy is forever pushing me beyond my social comfort zone, embracing and nurturing all and sundry. The geometry of my world is like parallel lines striving for a common goal, and yet, in spite of their proximity, they never touch. This is my comfort.

I too am struggling with current events, people losing their livelihoods, their lives. Small coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels are collapsing under this new reality. And, while governments are offering financial rescue packages, they are currently merely in the form of loans. How could small businesses that were barely making ends meet before this global threat take on the burden of greater debt? Big companies are being sustained as they represent greater numbers of employees, but it is often the smaller faces of business that contributes the most, as a group, and to the wellbeing of communities.

Our coffee world is being threatened by this plague. Exhibitions are being postponed or cancelled, and the rise of the independent coffee shop is fast turning into a downward curve. Cafés are shutting down, hotels are empty, and people are losing their jobs the world over. Quarantine measures created to ensure the future sustainability of our way of life have swiftly demolished the thin walls of our market’s financial foundation.

What can be done against the advance of this faceless enemy? Our choices in this instance remain the same as always: ignore, submit, or fight. Ignoring never resolves anything, and submission often leads to greater loss and pain. Fighting, to me, always offers the sole opportunity of victory. But how can a small business win against such strong adversity? Commerce should form alliances and lobby their leaders for greater financial support, not delayed burdens. Governments should offer grants, not loans, absorb the pain and provide relief to those who have built businesses through the sweat of their brow. Governments can print money, they even gave it a ‘cool’ name – “quantitative easing” – while small businesses wished they could. Governments can unilaterally raise taxes to strengthen their balance sheets while small businesses struggle to raise prices when faced with an increasingly competitive landscape. And, if the world’s governments fail in their political mandate, the whole face of retail will be transfigured with little chance of ever coming back to the life we have grown to know and love.

People, in a just society, should also contribute by volunteering, supporting their communities, and working hard in the national effort toward the common good. Entrepreneurs should create, show imagination, innovate, and assume responsibility for their businesses as governments should be there to assist and lead, co-ordinate but not take over. Proletariat could never abdicate, in a free and just world, full control of their lives to politicians or risk losing their freedom. People must strive through adversity by working hard to overcome the enemy, not as individuals but as communities, neighbourhoods, companies, nations. In that geometry, lines intersect, driven by need, but may never meet again.

Imagine a town without coffee shops, bars, or restaurants, places where people meet, relax, and build communities. Those establishments are the platforms of today, environments where societies interface. Without them, what would society look like? People are going to work or working from home, communicating only through virtual media. Without all of our current outdoor outlets like sports, travel, and shopping, what will become of our society? Where will all that energy be channelled? If not to build, then to destroy?

One of my favourite places to visit is a bakery/coffee shop/bar in St Tropez in the south of France. It is called Senequier and has been there since 1887. It is near the seafront where all the big yachts moor. All of the chairs are facing the sea and I love sitting there with my espresso in the morning and my pastis later on in the day, watching the world go by, hiding from the scorching heat under the cover of red tarpaulin. I would find it tragic for it to not be there anymore on my next visit.

It is at times like these that heroes come to the fore. Heroes, unlike popular belief, are not exceptional Hollywood-type people doted with superhuman abilities. Heroes are normal people, people like you and me who just decide to stop being self-serving. And it is with that simple gesture that these people begin to make a difference, transform by being transformed, and live life from the inside out. They ignore the impossible angles and shapes that life throws at them, see all events – good or bad – as opportunities for learning, growth, and definition of character. Heroes like great athletes thrive when they are off-balance.

It is always heroes who dampen fear and promote hope and, at times like these, we need them most.

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