LONDON, ONTARIO – We are sailing into the second week of a two-week hunker-down at our house as an asymptomatic friend who came to dinner earlier this month learned that her asymptomatic ex-mother-in-law (who regularly babysits her kids) had briefly visited with a barely symptomatic woman who only tested positive for the dreaded Wuhan Bat Soup Flu three days after our dinner. So our friend did the socially responsible thing and, along with an abject apology, issued a radioactive cootie alert to everyone she’d been in contact with since her ex-mother-in-law made that fateful visit.
As a visual artist and a writer in our 60’s, my wife and I find imposed isolation a lot less daunting than some folks might. There are projects to keep us fruitfully occupied and when those start to flag or need to be given a rest, we still enjoy the inestimable blessing of having one another in this house that fits us like a beloved shoe and also happens to be filled to the rafters with books and music and movies.
“Have you read all those books?” gormless visitors to the house have been known to ask.
And I’ve always regretted that suggestion of disappointment that plays on their faces when I reply, “Every last one of them? No.” It’s like they think I’m a faker and it bugs me. So, there’s another little project I can take on during this enforced down time. Looking beyond next week’s lifting of our strictest isolation (when I’ll at least be able to make masked and gloved forays to the grocery store) to that devoutly hoped-for day when the larger society unlocks its doors and dares to relax these tiresome strictures regarding ‘social distancing’, I hope to be able to answer the next slack-jawed questioner who visits our house: “Yes, I have actually.”
Physically, I’m happy to report, we’ve both been perfectly fine; maybe even a little better than ordinarily fine. Which is to say that we somehow mustered the energy and stamina last Thursday afternoon to install a new and taller fence in a section of our backyard that our delinquent dog had recently discovered she could jump over with disconcerting (to us) and exhilarating (to her) ease. So there; we fixed her little wagon sure enough. And three and a half hours’ worth of physical labour not only reassured us of the continued functionality of a whole series of muscles that we don’t hear from all that often nowadays. It also gave us something constructive to do in this maddening time of emergency when the natural impulse to try to step up your game and find a way to help put things right, is thwarted by the universal admonishment to lie low and stop doing everything except washing your hands.
In these anxiety-generating days and weeks, I have found that attaining a sense of equilibrium in realms other than the physical – the emotional, mental and spiritual realms – is a more challenging pursuit. I have no doubt that the sort of panic-buying and hoarding of staples that we’ve seen is an attempt to stake out some corner of our existence where we can feel like we have a little control. I frankly don’t have the nerve (or is it the masochistic impulse?) to even glance at my so-called financial portfolio. Instead I anxiously cleave to the investor’s maxim that I won’t actually have lost any money until I decide to cash in those stocks. Right? Just leave it alone for twenty more years and if the usual laws of wealth generation should ever become operative in our society once again (and this week that seems like an awfully big ‘if’) then my retirement fund should be replenished at about the same time as my children are starting to sort through fabric swatches at the funeral home for the lining of my casket.
When you’re living through a period as cataclysmically upsetting as this one, there is an impulse to go digging after more and more news updates and commentaries that will explain what’s going on and give you a grip to affix to a world that has become impossible to trust. But if you let this become compulsive or addictive, pinging between doom-mongers and deniers with bylines, I find that the confusion only deepens and you set yourself up for a paralyzing panic or cynicism. I’m not saying they’re all wrong or you shouldn’t try to keep abreast of important new developments but for the sake of your own mental health, I would advise limiting your intake. I suspect I’m not the only one feeling a keening nostalgia for those days when you could check in with various news media outlets for an hour to get a sense of how the world was wagging along and then, equipped with that latest semblance of knowledge, you’d get on with managing the exigencies of your own life.
If you learned on the next day that your understanding of a situation was incomplete or one-sided, then you could tweak or shift your perspective a little and carry on in a slightly modified way and see how that worked out for you. There was time and leeway to make those sort of adjustments. Life or death didn’t hang in the balance, depending on when or how or where you went about procuring a carton of milk and a loaf of bread. But what makes this particular apocalypse so mind-shreddingly distracting is the way in which it shows us that actually, yes, at the very deepest and most fundamental level, those are precisely the kind of acts that have always determined whether we live or die; we just didn’t realize it because the miracles of human co-operation and economic exchange were tuned with such awesome precision and efficiency that we were enabled to take it for granted and put our attention elsewhere. Now those long-time certainties all seem to be up for grabs..
Whenever I find myself getting distracted by some urgent desire that the world would hurry up and fix some festering problem for the sake of my own peace of mind, there’s a sweet little verse by the great Samuel Johnson which I recite to remind me that, powerless as I am to set the world to rights, I am not without agency to at least bring a little discipline to my own perspective:
“How small of all that human hearts endure,
that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,
our own felicity we make or find.”
And so here at last we approach another of those realms which cannot be accessed so easily as in the days before the Corona Virus; religion. Spiritually speaking, I read my missal and scriptures every morning, I take my dog out for a walk every night in the not-so-wee hours and pray the rosary, but dear God I miss my Church and can scarcely express how disoriented I feel to be going through a confession-less Lent – and three weeks hence, a private Easter – without resort to priests or a sacred space with a consecrated altar on which the sacrifice of the Mass will be enacted. Three weeks ago on Ash Wednesday most Christians thought they had determined what they’d be giving up for Lent; little suspecting that just a couple weeks later fate and circumstance would up the ante so extremely.
I have taken a lot of sustenance from a recent posting by the American Bishop, Robert Barron, on his Word on Fire blog in which he kicked off his reflections on the spiritual challenges of the quarantined life by quoting Blaise Pascal's assertion that, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Barron contends that while none of us wanted this particular trial to be visited upon us, we can use this break from business-as-usual to draw closer to God if we "embrace the solitude and silence in a spiritually alert way."
Barron writes that, "The great seventeenth-century philosopher thought that most of us, most of the time, distract ourselves from what truly matters through a series of divertissements (diversions). He was speaking from experience. Though one of the brightest men of his age and one of the pioneers of the modern physical sciences and of computer technology, Pascal frittered away a good deal of his time through gambling and other trivial pursuits. In a way, he knew, such diversions are understandable, since the great questions - Does God exist? Why am I here? Is there life after death? - are indeed overwhelming. But if we are to live in a serious and integrated way, they must be confronted—and this is why, if we want our most fundamental problems to be resolved, we must be willing to spend time in a room alone."
So, yes, in this unnerving time of uncertainty and deprivation, a profound opportunity beckons.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :