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The Pandemic Philosopher

Rodin’s Thinker wasn’t navel-gazing in some idyllic Eden. He was originally stationed at The Gates of Hell and pondering death on a vast scale. Nothing focuses the mind like facing our own mortality. And there’s good reason for enduring this discomfort. As the Stoics said, philosophy is the practice of studying death in order to fashion richer, fuller lives.

When the coronavirus spread through our marketplaces and our streets, we entered a period of enforced introspection. Now, as we ease back into our usual routines, embracing our coffee klatches, book clubs, and favorite sports, it’s good to remember the things we’ve learned while hunkering down at home.

Here are a few ways sheltering in place can make Pandemic Philosophers of us all.

Lesson 1: What matters most is human contact.

At home with our families for three months, we recalled the virtues of analog communication. For a long time, our digital gadgets have been dulling our minds and decreasing our ability to engage with others. Says critic Casey Schwartz, our devices “ask us to be anywhere but here, to live in any moment but now.” Yet quarantine has given us boot camp training in embodiment. As we snuggled up with our loved ones on the couch,  we rediscovered the healing power of touch and the pleasures of actual face time.

Love is the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the Gods.

—Plato

Lesson 2.  No more keeping up with the Kardashians.

During lock-down, we lost our fixation with celebrity. We found ourselves annoyed by pop icons offering health advice from their rose-scented bathtubs and home health spas that made shelter-in-place look like a vacation we’d been saving up for but would never get.  In the unfolding crisis, we tuned in to the pregnant doctor from Texas bravely posting videos from her local ER, and to front line accounts by first responders. What grabs our attention these days isn’t glitz. It’s everyday stories of empathy and compassion.

 Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.

—Plato

Lesson 3.  It’s time to widen our circle of care. 

As the pandemic wore on, we started longing for a sense of compassion on an even bigger scale. Some public figures we admire: Washington governor Jay Inslee who sent his state’s spare ventilators to overburdened hospitals in Manhattan. New York’s Andrew Cuomo who named a shelter in place law after his 88-year-old mother, Matilda, insisting, “Her life is not expendable.”   And chef Jose Andres, whose organization provided over 10 million meals for seniors sheltering in place.    The keyword these days is family — the sense that despite social distancing, we’re all somehow living under the same roof.

To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life and to put our personal life in order, we must first set our hearts right.

 –Confucius

Lesson 4.  We need to take more personal responsibility.

In the confines of a small apartment, the Facebook motto “Move fast and break things” is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.  In the last three months, we got a crash course in home stewardship, as we held meetings on Zoom, tutored our kids, groomed the dog, and practiced yoga — all in the same space.

Whether we’re managing a house, a company, or a nation, we’re much better off adopting the philosophy of environmentalists:  Tread carefully and mend your portion of the world.

Lesson 5.  And, while we’re at it, how about a crash course in humility? 

We need more public servants willing to engage in the mundane tasks of governing rather than political posturing.  Here’s where the lessons of good housekeeping come in handy yet again.  “Imagine if we put our most contentious party leaders in the room and make them responsible for their own upkeep,” one activist suggested.  “After all, who can be power-hungry or inflated mopping up the kitchen floor or washing out a pair of socks?”

As Plato warned in The Republic, in a democracy where anyone can rule, we must guard against selfish individuals who care for nothing but their own power and personal desires.

Lesson 6.  We need a break from constant striving.

One of the biggest casualties of the COVID epidemic has been our Puritan work ethic.  Those obsessed with productivity and the Hustle Culture are finally stepping back and asking, “What was it all for?”  

In the 1930s, the psychiatrist C.G. Jung told a journalist from The New York Sun, “What America needs in the face of the tremendous urge toward uniformity, the desire of things, the desire for complications in life, for being like one’s neighbors…is one great healthy ability to say No. To rest a minute and realize that many of the things being sought are unnecessary to a happy life. We are suffering, in our cities, from a need to simplify things. We would like to see our great terminals deserted, the streets deserted, a great peace descends upon us.”

The virus has given us that scenario.  Three months ago, we began saying The Great No to getting and spending,  to the stress of long commutes, and to the constant hype.

Home is a much-needed sanctuary. A place to rest and recoup and consider the most fundamental question of philosophy:  How can I live a more authentic life?

Recommended Reading

Philosophy
Plato’s Phaedo: A dialogue on the meaning of death
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Psychology
Man’s Search for Meaning and Yes to Life by Viktor Frankl
An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum
Modern Man in Search of a Soul by C.G. Jung

Literature
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (new translation by Miqhael M. Khesapeake)
The Plague by Albert Camus
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks


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Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org

5 COMMENTS

  1. Valerie Andrews, you have condensed volumes of thoughts and responsive actions into a powerful, gentle, certainly inspiring set of ‘does’.
    The pandemic certainly has focused our thoughts on the reality of real life and how much better it can be by just for example, to picking one of the topics; being kind. ‘Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.’ Wise words of plato.

    Seeing Winchester High Street deserted when it would normally be bustling with open markets, crowded with people, cafés, brasseries, restaurants open, is a reminder that at the height of the pandemic what life would be like without humans engaging with one another; friendly chats, exchanging views on topics, mostly friendly, open countenances, empathetic, generous in heart and soul. Witnessing the vacant city brought home to many what life is really about. Engaging and talking WITH friends and family rather than asking someone if they could like another coffee using a smart phone.

    Valerie, I applaud your posture; realization that life and humanity is precious and should never be taken for granted.

    Simon Lever
    Winchester, from across The Pond
    Championing Positivity, Empathy and KINDNESS

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