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Life in a Time of CoVid-19
I have a confession to make.
Ive done my best not to talk about it, even to my closest friends, because I know what their reaction will be. The only person who shares my secret is my wife – who suspected, even before I discussed it with her. It annoys her a bit … but then, she always has been great at putting up with my “eccentricities”. Over the past few days, as I read comments from all my friends on social media about their interrupted lives, their economic hardships, how much they miss loved ones, and the things they are doing to pass the time … I feel this rising compulsion to just blurt out my secret – to come out of the closet, so to speak.
In this case though, I suppose it is a bit more like inviting all of you into MY closet
You see . . . . . if I am completely honest, I have to admit that the last six weeks have truly been the best six weeks of my entire life. Every day seems more precious and well-spent. I have never felt so energized. You could even say that I am feeling optimistic, despite facing the bleakest future prospects that I have ever encountered.
Oh, it's true that a lot of the energy Im feeling arises from annoyance and frustration at all the damn fools who are doing the typical damnfoolery that damn fools do in a crisis situation (Im an equal-opportunity politics-cynic, so regardless of who you hate Im probably at least HALF on your side). But the more alone with myself I find myself, the richer my life has become. It has really weighed on my conscience these past weeks, listening to everyone as they bare their Souls, revealing their weakness, angst and justifiable insecurity . . . . . and know that Im actually guilty of enjoying the social distance.
I can already hear at least one or two familiar voices saying “Why the heck did you have to tell US that??! That was the ONE snippet of information you possess that NOBODY wants to hear right now. So seriously . . . . WTF???” Others are probably reminding themselves that autistics like me are often insensitive enough to blurt out things that seem incongruous, unnecessary, and even shocking to others. Thanks for not angry-facing me.
But you see, before I tell you all of the other things Ive been dying to share, I have to admit that I am acting entirely out of self-interest, and with the basest of motives. You see – I honestly AM enjoying “the end of the world as we know it,” and not only do I feel fine . . . I am straining at the dogleash to talk about my experiences with other intelligent and constructive people, particularly those who feel stuck and want to “get on with their lives” … or get “back to normal.” You see, I want to persuade you to consider a radical idea:
Instead of going “back to normal,” perhaps we should all sit down and – with as much scientific objectivity and logical caution as possible – try to design and implement a brand new way of living our day-to-days, earning our daily bread, and interacting with the nearly 8 billion others who share the same lifeboat. Instead of going back to our OLD lives, isn’t it time to consider a NEW “normal?”
Don’t misunderstand – I am NOT one of those people who thinks that CoVid-19 is some sort of “blessing in disguise”. On the contrary, I am often moved to tears when I hear how some of my friends and family members have been affected. And I also feel sad to see a "Gilded Age" start collapsing in upon itself. I enjoyed the self-indulgent materialistic bacchanalia that people from my generation lived – or at least hoped to live – as much as anyone.
It's just that, knowing what I do about the state of the global environment and the global economy, I always struggled with the guilt. I reached a point where the "high" of Global Consumerist Overindulgnce was outweighed by the knowledge that I was helping to create a righteous mess for the generation that is just now coming of age. Now … like a junkie who is starting to feel clean for the first time in years … I can look at the excesses of that consumption-addict lifestyle and recognize what utter folly it was. As Walter Trout so accurately observed: “The whole damn world has got a monkey on its back.”
Listen to me people while I tell you 'bout the trip
We got to get together just to break the monkey’s grip
You know he's getting stronger every day that passes by
I'm gettin mighty worried, and here's the reason why
Our thirst for coal and oil now is like a speeding bus
We got to kill the monkey ‘fore the monkey kills us.
Before launching into biographical flashbacks and the general conceptual cud I was chewing over even before this pandemic began, I should admit to those wondering whether to read further -- I don’t have very many “big picture” ideas for how to fix the broken planet. I know that the hyperactive, jet-fueled, consumerist paradigm that our modern world followed before the Coronavirus crisis is destroying the planet, and I strongly believe that our current crisis offers us a rare opportunity to sit back and try to re-design our daily lives, to be less wasteful, less selfish, less busy, less stressful and more in tune with the rhythms and balance of the natural world. But that is just a very general insight, and not a useful plan for rebuilding society. I was really hoping that some of YOU would chip in with your own perspectives.
So if you are looking for “Answers” with a big “A” … stop reading and click on something else.
On the other hand, when it comes to dealing with loneliness and social isolation – and more importantly, learning how to live a rich and rewarding life even if you never again get within six feet of a person who does not share genetic material with you … well … I think I have enough experience with those issues to offer a few helpful pointers.
I never liked flashing my CV around, so I will keep the personal details to the pertinent ones only. Yeah, Im autistic – high-functioning in most contexts, but noticeably “weird” – and as a result, I had a sad, lonely childhood. Because human nature. Boo-hoo.
But like the fellow autistics I admire most – Dan Akyroyd, Carl Sagan, Greta Thunberg, etc. – I have always done my best to appreciate the “superpower” that autism grants me, and not concern myself with the kryptonite.
My kryptonite is social interaction. I understand the reasons why I feel (and make others feel) awkward, and why I struggle to complete two sentences without repeating myself, or pausing and changing subject and direction completely, or even stopping dead in the middle of a sentence, unable to complete the thought. But this frustrating flaw in my communications protocol is as hard to explain to “Normals” as it is to describe purple haze to a blind Lawrence Welk fan. I almost always end up talking AT people, rather than TO them (no doubt, when I re-read this turgid rant for editing purposes, the irony of that last sentence is going to be considerable!).
I DO have things to say, though. And while my social skills are never what others would describe as “gracious”, I can hold very interesting and rewarding conversations with other people, as long as I have the support structure of a written sentence to keep my thought train on a single track. It is only the face-to-face part of human interaction that I struggle with (well … that, and telephones. I loathe them. Maintaining focus for over 3 minutes is excruciatingly hard. Don’t even own a Smartphone…).
I did manage to muddle my way through life as a nondescript salaryman for a while, but it eventually became clear that I had to change the way I live my life, in order to make the most of the things I do well and minimize the chances that my personality quirks will offend, inconvenience or confuse others. And so … for the past 20 years I have been living a life that is probably not much different from what you have experienced during your recent lockdown.
Are you skeptical about that claim? Well then … how many of my Facebook friends have seen my face recently enough to pick me out of a police lineup? That’s right … none of you. Nobody who friends me on Facebook has seen me in person since … well … probably Simon Harris in 2004 or thereabouts. Even those who received my two-years-ago Christmas card would struggle to recognize me (Ive lost 20kg since 2019, and now wear eyeglasses more regularly).
Imagine that! Two full decades of Social Distancing
My point is that I have a bit of experience, and a few insights about how to enjoy life even when there is nowhere to go and nobody to talk to. I suspect that the reason I have so thoroughly enjoyed the last six weeks is that, for the first time this century, I can enjoy being a recluse without having to feel guilty about it, or make excuses about it.
From experience, then, here are some guidelines that can help you feel less isolated and make your lockdown a bit more enjoyable and productive.
Hint number one: Find something useful to do
Wow! What a great insight. Why didn’t I think of that? (said nobody.)
Of course, that is just the problem. Everyone is stuck at the same hurdle. How is a person supposed to "find something useful to do," when daily life is suspended in midair, there are a thousand worries that simply wont go away, and nobody will give you even a vague clue about when this endless spell in purgatory will be over?
Here’s the problem:
You are trying to escape from Here and Now. Because “here” sucks, and “now” I am soooo &$#@%?+ bored! You keep thinking of the things that made you feel good in the past, or butting your head against the infuriating restrictions and limitations that prevent you from doing any of those things. Instead of focusing on the here-and-now, you are trapped between longing for the past and uncertainty about the future. If you push aside all distractions, and just set aside 30 minutes to start writing a list of possible things to do, it will quickly become clear that there are an infinite number of things that you COULD be doing with your time.
Here’s the Game cheat:
The important word is “useful” – To be of use. To perform a service or offer a benefit.
It’s a funny thing, but greatest joy a person can experience comes from doing something kind, beneficial or productive, despite knowing that you will get nothing in return except (possibly) the gratitude of the person who you “were useful to”. When you make your list, there may be an idea that instantly inspires you. If so – do not hesitate. Get started on it immediately! But if you are still stuck, ask yourself which of the ideas will benefit others the most, while benefiting YOU the least.
I must warn you, doing unasked favors for unsuspecting people can be addictive. Once you start, you just might find yourself developing a new and surprisingly compulsive habit.
Hint number two: Create something
When you are feeling stuck, useless and bored, this is probably the most rewarding way to break the cycle of depression. You probably have noticed this already, if you have started cooking at home more regularly. Any sort of creative activity can help you forget how bored you are were. The reason why you get such a jolt of satisfaction when you finish a “creative” project is ... well, it just happens to be the exact same reason why helping others makes you feel good. So please excuse me if I digress into a bit of philosophical navel-gazing. You will see the connection soon enough, if you read on.
Here’s the problem:
If you ever took a Philosophy 101 course, you probably learned about the “hierarchy of needs” that affects all humans, even weirdos like me. This is something philosophers have been looking at in detail since philosophy was invented. Your Philosophy 101 course probably used the version developed by Abraham Maslow, but the ancient Greeks had covered this ground pretty thoroughly, some two or three millennia before Maslow was born.
The Greeks broadly divided human needs into two categories, which they called the Eros and the Thymos. The word Eros is probably familiar to you, but it refers to a lot more than the things we call “erotic”. For the Greeks, “Eros” needs amd motivations included the need for food, shelter, clothing and sex, as well as love and companionship (anything that requires the participation of another human or animal). It also incorporates the "acquisitive" urge, whether for land, cattle, wives, gold, or any of the things that were not around in Ancient Greece. All of these things were viewed as more-or-less “physical” needs, and thus, related to the Eros.
The second category – Thymos – compels one to seek things that are not physical. Thymos includes the desire for recognition, the need for self-realization and a sense of accomplishment, as well as the need for things like intellectual stimulation, physical activity, sleep, recreation, competition, challenges, and so on. Socrates felt that Thymos was the most uniquely human of urges, and spent a lot of time trying to understand it. To him, it was the thing which makes humans truly special.
Naturally, the "Eros" is a necessary thing. A man who lacks Eros motivation would forget to eat, drink and reproduce. But the Thymos is what inspires a person to achieve greatness, honour and dignity. It is the source of generosity, pride, compassion, ambition and kindness. A person who cultivates his Thymos, and who succeeds in realizing the things that Thymos inspires - that was the Greek definition of a "hero". Indeed, Socrates often referred to Thymos as “the heroic impulse.”
Here’s the payoff – most people (well, at least most NORMAL people) get the majority of their “Thymos” satisfaction from social activity. When your boss says “good job”, or the teacher calls on you and you have the right answer; when you score the winning goal/try/touchdown in some sporting competition; when your friends laugh at your joke, or you see the smile on the face of someone you helped . . . all of these are important ways for you to address your inner Thymos needs. Now, suddenly, the source of your usual daily jolt of pride and “self-worth” has been cut off completely. Is it any wonder you feel miserable?
You may not think of these things as particularly “heroic.” Bit the truth is that all of the little smiles, pats on the back, kind words and nods of approval that you are used to receiving over the course of a day go a long way towards meeting your minimum daily requirement for self-esteem: your need to feel useful, important, needed, appreciated, and yes … heroic. Without that steady IV drip supplying your Thymos, you start to feel empty, and you yearn for the social interaction that used to be your main supply.
Here’s the Game cheat:
People who (for whatever reason) are not able to satisfy their Thymos needs through human interaction are forced to figure out some other ways to fill the void. So yeah, I have a lot of experience in figuring out how to give meaning to a Socially Distant life. One of the most reliable solutions ... I have found ... is to exercise your creativity. The reason that you enjoy cooking your own food (particularly if it is something you rarely do) had little to do with food itself. It comes from the simple satisfaction of having created something unique – something you can call your own, and look upon with pride.
There are literally a million things you can do, right now, to meet those Thymos needs, whether it be cleaning out the front closet, painting the grungy walls in the bathroom, making a five-course dinner for your family, or painting, drawing, sculpting, building … any sort of creative act. When you combine Hint One with Hint Two – that is, when you exercise your creativity to help someone else – it can be enough to keep your Thymos satiated for DAYS!
You might scoff, and wonder how something like that is supposed to make you feel like a “hero.” But the act of creating something is more than just heroic; it can be positively Godlike. After all, even God seems to have experienced the Thymos joy that creative activities inspire – the chance to look upon your own unique creation, and realize that “It is Good.”
Hint number three: Start a project that seems too big to finish within your lifetime
Like this essay . . . . if I ramble on any longer.
One huge stumbling block that you face, as you try to think of a good "project" to keep you occupied during the shutdown, is the reluctance to think big. After all, "this will all be over, before long. Then I will get back to my old life and . . . . ."
The truth is, we honestly cannot say what the future holds. There are reports that people who have already recovered from Covid-19, once, are now getting infected again. A report in a South Korean newspaper way back at the end of February, when it did not get much attention, suggested that a woman caught the virus, recovered, caught it again, and then died. If that doesnt discourage you sufficiently, many doctors are now openly questioning how much they know about the virus' mutability -- the rate at which it changes into a new (potentially more deadly) version. There seem to be seven separate strains already! That is astonishing for a virus that we believe is only about 6 months old. So even if and when a vaccine can be developed, we may forever have to remain cautious and "safe-not-sorry."
Regardless of whether or not you are ready to abandon hope of a "return to the old normal", you DO need to look for something that will give your life some degree of purpose. Some meaning at least. If possible, maybe even a little dash of heroism. Since there is absolutely no way to guess how long this project may last, it is best to choose something that you can not possibly complete, in this lifetime. That way you will have to focus on the day-to-day, rather than the "finish line." You will see the project as an ongoing work in progress, which you can hand off/bequeath to someone else, or put on hold if you choose to do so, when your interests and life situation change.
The key is to find something that can be beneficial to others (no matter how small or insignificant those benefits might seem), but offers you no direct monetary or physical benefit – no “Eros-category” payoff. If you make up your mind to take nothing but “Thymos-category” payoffs from this project … I promise you … the satisfaction that you receive will be multiplied a dozen times over. More importantly, if you choose something that seems too big for one person to achieve in a lifetime, sooner or later you will be forced to include others in the effort. This may inspire your friends and partners to start living a more “heroic” life as well.
The Game cheat, here, lies in understanding that physical isolation does not have to mean social isolation. We have the Internet, for goodness sake! If somebody like ME is capable of social interaction via the Internet, then surely it can be of use to a "Normie." Despite all the silly, self-indulgent, time-wasting ways we tend to USE this amazing revolution in interpersonal communication, the fact is that we have access to more opportunities for social interaction than any generation of humans that has ever walked the planet. We just have to learn how to use it in a more productive way.
Start a blog or a website that is either informative or creative. Start building/organizing a group to make facemasks for senior citizens, deliver takeout food to people under quarantine, or design lessons for kids to use for homeschooling. There are so many possibilities that it seems pointless to even continue listing examples.
Twenty-some years ago when I was feeling a bit bored and useless, I started to build a website that Jr.High/High school students could use to learn a bit more about Japanese history (a particular interest of mine at the time). Amazingly, though a new job eventually forced me to suspend the project, the site is still being maintained by the US-Japan Society (http://www.us-japan.org/edomatsu/home.html). In fact, I recently received an effusive e-mail from a teacher in Washington state, who is using it for homeschooling (8th grade social studies). I had forgotten that the site even existed, yet the feeling of accomplishment that her e-mail generated was enough to make me feel warm and fuzzy for almost a week!
I don’t know if anyone will manage to read this far. I hope someone does, but as I noted in the “hint number two” section, the main motivation and reward for writing it was simply to exercise my God-given ability to Create. I DO hope that it inspires others to begin their own Thymos-stoking activities, and helps to make their social isolation a bit more tolerable.
Now … if anyone out there wants to start the discussion, Im eager to explore and debate ideas for changing the way we live our daily lives. If we all put our minds to it, perhaps we can devise a “new Normal”, to replace the society that we all wish we could get back to, but which CoVid-19 seems to have shattered irreparably. Feel free to comment, share, like … or ignore … as you see fit.
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