Read time: 5 mins

shaved head poem

by Ben Okri
18 June 2020

living in testing times.
most testing times in one
hundred years. pandemic
sweeping through our
world will wipe clean
pages of the human story.
nothing will be unchanged
in its wake. strikes at the core
of what it means to be human.
strikes at the heart
of culture and of civilisation.
culture depends on dialogue
and civilisation depends
on communality.

first time in the history
of the human we’re compelled
to survive on little
contact with each other.
it’s as if the earth, exhausted
with the monstrosities
of our deeds and follies has
pressed the reset button
on humanity by sending
us this nightmare.

for too long now
we’ve wallowed in excess.
we’ve wrought damage
on the world in a relentless
pursuit of wealth.
we’ve taken and taken
exhausted the teats
of mother earth
dried up the wells
of renewal
given ourselves over
to exploitation and to greed.
we’re like the children of Israel
who the prophets
found in orgies,
worshipping graven images.
we have refused to face
the dark truth that our civilisation
has become the greatest
threat to our civilisation.
we’ve become the very
worst enemies we have.
everything we did drove
us towards disaster.
if it hadn’t been this
catastrophe it would’ve
been another.

we’re overdue
an apocalypse. signs
are there in the culture.
we keep dreaming
about it, imagining it
in our novels,
poems, films, plays.
we’re haunted by
an impending apocalypse
because deep down
we know we deserve it,
deep down we know
that we’re racing
towards it with our deeds
and our dreams.

would it take a
true spiritual austerity
forced upon us to see
how bloated our
lives have become,
how empty, and how much
vanity and folly
we conceal from ourselves?

perhaps we travel too
much, polluting the skies
with restlessness,
afraid to stay at home
quietly with those we
profess to love.

there’s no need for panic.
for awareness is calm,
acts beyond emotion.

we tend to ramp
up the negatives,
multiply things we fear.
disaster sells.
it’s a mysterious
thing about us
that we respond
much more to fear
than to goodness or love.
it’s a human flaw
we ought to
compensate for.

a virus has entered
our mental sphere.
the plague is everywhere
it’s in our dreams,
it’s on TV,
from it we can’t
be free.
it’s a real contagion
a mental contagion.
it’s destroying
us in nation after nation.
it’s in the air we breathe
it’s in the air we think.

a new contagion is needed
to fight the one that’s seized
our lives. we need a contagion
of courage, health, and love.
we need a new
spiritual condition
to fight our fears
fight our panic.

we seldom talk about
a healthy mind
a brave spirit
in our times of crisis.
the mind has its powers
the spirit has its mysteries
its miracles which surprise
the certainties of science.

for times like this
awaken the miraculous
in us. we’re never more
ingenious than when we
act from solidarity.

we’ll survive our
latest armageddon.
but we’ll be marked
by how we got through it.
we will either be raised up
by our courage
or degraded by our meanness.
here’s the moment
to rise to the true potential
of our strength,
wisdom, farsightedness.

not just whether
we survive; it’s also
who we become.
it’s not just how we are
in prosperity that reveals us.
it’s how we are when faced
with the ultimate test of all,
the test of death.
once a nation
during the great war rose
to the challenge
of character,
of destiny.
and her response
changed not only
herself but the world.

we’re at such a turning
point in human history.
it was always coming for us.
disaster was always
coming for us.
we’ve overdrawn
on the bank
of our futures.
it’s time to ask questions
that go all the way down
to the depths
of the meaning
of human life
the life of the species
the life of the earth.

our crisis is an opportunity
to change our destiny.
but the quality of that altering
depends on the best
lessons we take
from suffering.
sometimes we take
the worst lessons
from tragedy.
but we’re transformed
most by those who
learned the best ones.

what has happened to us?
our books, art, plays
were measured not
by their inspiration
or how deeply they spoke
to us in the cage
of the human
but by how much
they sold for, how
many copies
were bought,
or how many lowered
their behinds on
the hardened seats.

we lost our way.
we lost the track, the path,
the road, altogether,
and are deep in the land
of moral vacuity,
spiritual emptiness.

we have been listening
to only one loud voice,
that speaks with the power
of a worldwide megaphone,
voice of profit,
gods of success.
so rigged are the goalposts
of values that other voices
are not heard.
they don’t have great
social victories on their side
to prove universally strong
and persuasive. but does that
make them any less valuable?
voices that say they are
human too, and deserve
all the rights
of the human,
rights to health, to education,
to food, jobs, to raising
their families with dignity.
voices that speak
for climate crisis,
that speak not for raising
more walls but for a new
world co-operation.

we have entered the age
of disasters.
the age of narrowness
of heart is over. we
need to re-direct our
values, higher.

doctrines of hate
have nowhere to take us.
there’s no real destiny
for limited dreams anymore.

we could be at the verge
of a miraculous moment
in which we deliberately
choose and fight for
an upward curve
in our evolutionary
possibilities. but

imagine what could happen to
the world if this crisis
brought about genuine
in our leaders,
in the people,
and if we pressed for change
at a time when we are most
vulnerable to death?

we are in potential
myth-making times.
it’s time to make
a new myth for
we could give birth
to a new kind of compassion,
new civic imagination,
new solidarity.
we’re up to it.
it’s why we fail so much,
fumble so much,
and keep clawing
our way back up,
keep moving the human
story further, through indirect,
circuitous ways. our
myths point in two
towards our fall,
towards our ascension.

that’s the highest
meaning of tragedy.
time to listen.
time to ascend.

Illustration by Alexis Baydoun

About the Author

Ben Okri

Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, and playwright. His novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize in 1991. His works have been translated into 26 languages. He has been a Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Okri’s books have won numerous […]