I knew it mattered, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch the footage of the record-breaking bushfires barrelling through Australia in the beginning of 2020. The singed koalas, the columns of black smoke so big they generated their own weather, the piles of smouldering rubble where homes once stood—I’m embarrassed to say I scrolled past everything.
Later, when the novel coronavirus would crash like a tidal wave over the world, I did the same thing. I’d take in just enough news to stay informed. But I couldn’t look at the photos of the temporary hospitals popping up in Wuhan, or even at the heartwarming videos of Italians singing to each other from their quarantined balconies.
Some pain is just too much to face. And here, in the span of a few weeks, we had the perfect confluence of devastation: a dying planet, reckless apathy, opportunistic governments, loss of life, and in the middle of it all, my own little tragedy.
My fiancé had called off the wedding, and with everything else, it was becoming increasingly difficult to believe that there was anything good left to look forward to.
A year, to the day, before COVID-19 shut down my hometown of Manila, he and I had left his hometown of Melbourne to embark on a highway holiday. The plan was to do a circuit route up to Sydney and back, completing what was known, at that point, as one of the most beautiful road trips in the world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the two-lane highway flanked by sapphire ocean on one side and eucalyptus-covered hills on another, would get the brunt of the record-breaking fires—and would soon be immortalized, on screens around the world, as a pile of ashes. Neither did we realize that the quiet memories we created then—spotting rosellas in the wild, eating fluffy croissants at a country cafe, exploring a gorge not even on the map—would have the same fate as well. Where there was forest, there would soon be rubble. Where there was freedom, closeness, hope, there would soon be quarantine, isolation, fear. Where there was love, there would soon be loss.
When he proposed to me upon returning from that road trip, I felt what I imagine a lot of people feel in the same situation. I was moved that someone could see me for who I am and still love me. I was elated that I would get to be with the person I cared about most, for the rest of my life. I was relieved that we would have each other to lean on when times got tough. I felt grateful, excited, and—a small price to pay—a little disappointed that I could no longer relate to sad love songs. But the most unfamiliar feeling I encountered was certainty. I was sure that I had chosen the right man. I was sure about what our future would look like. I was sure that life was about to become way better than I could ever imagine. But—and don’t we all know it now—nothing in life is certain.
I was in my parents’ house in the Philippines, preparing for my big move, when he called from Australia to let me know it was over.
I was in my parents’ house in the Philippines, preparing for my big move, when he called from Australia to let me know it was over. Of course, I told him I would fly to Melbourne that day to fight for our relationship. But no. Refund the ticket, he said, discussing this in person would change nothing. He mailed my things back and never spoke to me again.
The embarrassment of having already sent out the Save-the-Dates, I could handle. The tedium of having to explain the breakup to those who attended our engagement party just two weeks prior, I could endure. The financial fallout of losing our downpayments, I could overcome. The strangeness of putting the ring back in its box. The completeness of the rejection, and the suddenness of it all. The exile. The agony. Even the grief, unspeakable as it was, I could survive. But the shaken certainty—the fearful realization that I could no longer know anything for sure—I couldn’t bear.
Not everyone knows the anxiety that comes with a broken engagement. But we’re all familiar with the helplessness that comes with watching climate change or a pandemic threaten all the things we’ve put our trust in—whether it's our institutions, our jobs, or our health. Not only is the fear all-consuming (after a breakup, we obsessively check our ex’s social media; during a bigger disaster, we refresh the news—finding it difficult, in both situations, to peel our eyes off the screen no matter how ugly things get), but the fear is also numbing. Left unattended, anxiety will eventually tip over into callousness. We do this as an act of self-preservation. The heart can’t hold an infinite amount of fear—at a certain point, we have to shut our emotional receptors off and survive.
Unfortunately, even when we deny our emotions, they bleed out of us anyway. This means the callousness doesn’t stay neutral. Instead, it turns into resentment, anger, hatred. Sometimes towards others, sometimes towards ourselves. We treat new lovers the way we believe we should have treated the exes who hurt us. We disregard the needs of our neighbors and hoard supplies for ourselves. We fight strangers. We assign blame. And through it all, we manage to deny ourselves the peace, joy, and love we crave. A punishment we’ve convinced ourselves we deserve. Time and again, we see how insecurity eventually turns into antagonism. The heart, alarmed, gets hard.
In these apocalyptic times, tragedy after unimaginable tragedy convinces us there is no other choice but to steel ourselves, be battle-ready. After all, boulders outlast bushfires. Tanks outlast disease. Even engagement rings are more valuable, the harder the stone. We tell ourselves that existing boils down to continuing to exist. That exacting revenge is necessary justice. We begin to understand the cliches: us or them, kill or be killed. But it is here that our intuition fails us.
The French philosopher Simone Weil’s life was bookended by both world wars, meaning she lived through her own apocalypse. And yet, she argued against hardness. One of her most well-known ideas is about how the laws of both the physical and emotional world abide by gravity: When you let go of something heavy, it falls to the ground; when a force hits an object, it responds accordingly; when someone hurts you, you hurt them back—or pay forward the injury. Gravity is the rule. And yet, it is not the only choice. Weil describes grace as the one response to gravity that changes its course. When someone hurts you and you don’t hurt them back, you incite a small revolution against the tyranny of pain. Cultivate grace, she says.
I think of her words now that our collective fears, in the midst of worldwide disaster, tempt us to only care for ourselves. I think of her words in light of my heartbreak and the inescapable hardening that comes with it. And I realize: What an impossible mandate. Even with the smallest of injuries and inconveniences, I lash out, melt down, give in to my worst impulses. What more when I am governed by the trauma that tells me there is no future for this planet, no peace on the other side of pain, no love waiting for me to become its home. How in the world do I cultivate grace when I can’t get past my own heart-numbing fear?
There is a moment from that Australian road trip that keeps coming back to me these days. Somewhere in the middle of the most densely forested area in the country, we decided to veer off the beaten track. At first, the road was gravel. But as we crushed twigs and scattered pebbles down every cliffside turn, the path smoothened into dust. When we couldn’t take the car any further, we continued on by foot through a tree-covered trail. In the dappled sunlight, the ground softened into sand. And then the forest ended. We found the edge of the continent.
Let’s stop being conduits for pain. Be soft. Love hard. Get to the other side together.
What is it about the pursuit of depth, the openness to the possibility of good, the care for our fellow traveler, that propels us through the unknown, towards the light on the other side? In the bright panorama that met us, everything was celebrating. The beach grasses applauded. The clouds reached their arms around the sky. The sand dove into the water. Leaving our clothes on the shore, we did the same.
Friends, we’re all suffering. Let’s stop being conduits for pain. Be soft. Love hard. Get to the other side together.
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