My reflections on society, life and SARS

Professor H K Chang

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Hong Kong has been troubled by SARS over the past few months. Although it has been distressing, the emergence of SARS compels us to reflect on the function of society and the meaning of life. Here are some of my thoughts.

Man vs nature

Despite the fantastic exploits human beings have made, changing and taking advantage of nature throughout the course of human history, many have come to understand that it is inexpedient to harm the environment; nature does not exist simply to be conquered. While human beings and nature, (microorganisms and viruses included), battle constantly, we must strike a successful balance at all times. If human beings do not engage with nature wisely, our survival on earth eventually will become impossible.

We may expect SARS to be conquered by technology, or human ingenuity. There is no way, however, that we can prevent new viruses from assailing us. Human beings need the wisdom to develop harmonious relationship with nature.

Individual vs. society

An interdependent relationship exists between individuals. In present day society, we tend to compete, forgetting that we also need to cooperate with others to enable society to function. The outbreak of SARS reminded us that we need to join forces to prevent the virus from spreading, that personal interest is closely linked with public interest, that the interest of others can even be our own self interest. Only through cooperation between individuals can society prosper and, therefore, can each of us enjoy an environment in which we continue to compete and thrive.

SARS also reminds us that there are times when, to protect public interests, individuals need to make sacrifices. It also reminds us that collective safety and stability is the foundation of our individual freedom.

Life and philosophy of life

Finally, SARS prompts people to ponder death. Realizing one must die can inspire people to treasure life. It can help shape one's philosophy of life. Here are three notions I would like to leave with you:

First, I am a scientist, and I personally believe that an objective reality in life exists, (e.g. SARS). Only when we are willing to face reality, can we analyze problems and develop solutions. Denial and avoidance never solves problems.

Second, although there are bound to be times when we feel pessimistic, the experience of dealing with SARS tells us that optimism is a most effective means of coping well with difficulties. It has also been scientifically proven that positive thinking is one of the very best ways to boost the immune system. A positive attitude definitely benefits ourselves, our families and society.

Last, while we should remain hopeful, we must face the fact that hardships in life are inevitable. The best vaccination against adversity may well lie in adopting an approach such as one we find in the ancient Chinese proverb: "Do not take favorable situations for granted; always know that adversity can happen." Daoism also teaches us that "misfortune is the neighbour of fortune." These words may form a spiritual equivalent of the SARS folk remedies, white vinegar and Ban Lan Gen. Other common Chinese sayings, including "winter will come when summer is over," and "good times follow bad," can also help us in times of trouble, in the same way steroids help us contend with SARS.

On that note, I am sure you have heard enough from me for one day! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

(This is an English summary. For the full text, please refer to the version in Chinese.)

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