Isolation. It has a long and honored history for promoting profound insight, spriritual renewal and moral courage. For centuries, philosophers, poets, mystics, scientists and holy men and women in every culture have discovered that only by withdrawal from the world can one see more clearly into it. Even Jesus withdrew into the desert for 40 days before beginning his public life.
Yet, the rigors of isolation can be hard to endure; solitary confinement, for example, is usually considered a punishment. We are social animals and it is in our nature to seek the company of others, to be part of a community The brilliant 17th century French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal identified the inability to sit alone in a room as the source of all of humanity’s problems, and concluded that the resulting existential anxiety from being all alone is a defining trait of the human condition. (The Pensées, 1670)
So now here we are, most of us, sitting in various configurations of being “alone in a room” due to the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. For an industrious people with a strong Protestant work ethic, being sequestered at home, separated from “our team,” and decidedly unbusy, even if not actually unemployed, presents a tremendous psychological challenge. Of course we’re anxious because we do, in fact, face a very real, but invisible existential threat, one that cannot be bombed, bullied, or bought. Most Americans alive today have never faced such a world-wide catastrophe before, so being asked “to fight” for the greater good by simply staying home and staying safe seems counterintuitive at best, and heretical at worst.
My husband and I have been “fighting” at home for six weeks now. I am in regular touch with a lot of people, friends and family, but we don’t actually see anyone, not even our son who lives nearby. As retirees, we are among the lucky ones who can afford to stay at home without conflicting responsibilities. With the exception of the occasional hassles of grocery shopping, I have to admit that I have rather begun to enjoy this isolation. The stay-at-home mandate offers the perfect excuse to abandon usual routines, suspend all obligations, and manage my days for myself. I’ve even had the uninterrupted time to finish that art quilt I’ve been working on for months.
Most of all, however, I’ve found the opportunity to just sit and think, to digest all the news (the good, the bad, and the ugly), to observe people’s behaviors (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and to consider the long-term effects of this pandemic on future generations of Americans and the world. And believe it or not, I have found an upside, some reasons to hope — in the good of course, but even in the bad and the ugly. There are possibilities for change.
COVID-19 has provided nothing if not enlightenment, at least for anyone who is paying attention. It has exposed in glaring daylight all the fault lines in American society, from the gross incompetence of national leadership, to the systemic problems in our healthcare system, to the rampant inequities in labor policies. And through it all, our persistent social, economic, racial, digital, and political divides not only remain, but grow wider, quietly but decisively dispelling any romantic notion that “we’re all in this together.” No, we are not, and it’s time we admit that we haven’t been together for a very long time.
So just how does this “enlightened” conclusion represent an upside? Yes, well, I too have been angry, disgusted, and depressed about all this at some point, but simply turning off the news and not hearing about all of it is tantamount to being a little kid who, in a tantrum of defiance, puts his hands over his ears and refuses to listen. (One big kid in the room who won’t listen is enough!) I have decided that the more mature and productive way to use this national time-out is to look at the entire COVID experience with a cold-eyed realism, to examine some of the effects of all this on both the country and on individuals, and to accept some personal responsibility for my own past attitudes and for change going forward.
Historically, pandemics and other world-wide calamities have always been catalysts for change, mostly because they defy borders and ultimately affect everyone in one way or another. Extreme situations push people to accept extreme solutions, thus normalizing policies and behaviors that might have once been unacceptable, even unthinkable. From the Great Depression, for example, we adopted socialist programs such as social security and the WPA; WWII reversed our nationalist/isolationist policies and brought us into global partnerships through NATO and the UN; the HIV/AIDS epidemic completely changed sexual behavior among young people, normalizing the use of condoms and testing for STDs; post 9-11prompted us to surrender some personal privacy for public safety.
So, what will Americans normalize from this pandemic? Might we finally accept that working, or studying, in a brick-and-mortar building is not essential for everyone, but that everyone everywhere in the country must have universal internet access. While we’re at it, let’s reconsider just whose work is essential in the first place and give more respect, and renumeration, to those who keep society up and moving: nurses, doctors, teachers, and first-responders of course, but also all those other essential, often unnoticed people doing everyday ordinary jobs in fields and factories and stores and warehouses and retirement homes. Let’s look at the crisp, clear skylines in our cities, the less congested roads, the improved air quality, and the clearer water in canals and waterways and ask ourselves, once again, how we might make these sudden improvements in our climate last. Finally, let’s recognize that being prepared is not just about adequate testing and PPE, but also about a stable health-care system, sufficient funding for public-health agencies, and support for industry specialists and government career professionals across the board in all departments who know where things are and how to get things done.
This whole “America first” attitude has not helped us in confronting this pandemic abroad and now it has trickled down to a “me first” selfishness that threatens to impede our recovery here at home. We have grown impatient; we want to declare defeat, hit the beach, and get on with it, even as our national death rate continues to climb. A number of states (including Texas) are starting to reopen before meeting even the most basic opening guidelines. Protestors, some carrying guns, have grown louder, resisting not only any shut-down orders, but even simple preventative measures of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing when in public. Never mind the greater good of protecting others from illness or death, it’s me and my rights first!
Postscript: Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m having a hard time finding an upside to this latest development of premature openings. Guess I’ll just have to stay at home and think about it a while longer — quite a while longer…