The Pandemic Philosopher

By Valerie Andrews

By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France - Le penseur de la Porte de l'Enfer (musée Rodin), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24671002

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 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, 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 descend 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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