Unlike the first week of confinement, during the second full week I have spent a lot of time thinking about mortality. In the first week, there was all the bustle of adjustment: laying in supplies, figuring out new routines, trying to keep up with official government directives about who could do what/when/where and for how long, a constant stream of confinement-related memes, jokes, and fake news…. The first week fairly flew by.
The second week, on the other hand, has tapped into my mental fat stores, as the reality sinks in that we are in this for the long haul — and if two weeks can feel so long, what can the “long haul” possibly be like ? Edouard Philippe, the French First Minister, announced last week that the period of confinement will last at least until April 15 adding, ominously, “and possibly longer.” Well of course it’s going to be longer, it’s going to be really really really long, and what’s more it won’t be over until it’s over and the government will tell you when that is, thank you very much ! (Who knows ? Maybe when the confinement order is finally lifted, fear of contagion and social distancing will have become so ingrained in us that being allowed out of our homes won’t feel liberating at all.)
In Week Two, I begin to seriously wonder what is going to become of me. Will I have any soundness of mind/muscles/friends/anti-aging serum left ? I need a haircut SO BADLY already ! I walk past the shuttered hair salons in my neighbourhood hoping that the proprietor will be coming or going at that very instant and I could offer them a handsome sum just to quickly cut my hair. I am this close to taking matters into my own hands and shaving my head, but I fear that it could be (mis)interpreted as a sign of distress, or mental imbalance, which is what I don’t need at a time when people already change sidewalks when they see you coming. I keep thinking I could do it and then wear a hat all the time, but the hats I have are all single-purpose — sun hat, winter toque, bike helmet.
What do any of these minor problems and preoccupations have to do with mortality ? Nothing, which is why I am ashamed to be thinking of them when so many are facing their mortality at close range. Anyone following the relentless and undiluted bad news about the wildfire spread of Covid-19 around the globe must surely be feeling the cold breath of mortality down their neck. Numbers and numbers and numbers: graphs, percentages, projections; numbers doubling in 24 hours, curves going straight up; numbers of masks/ventilators/tests. No one is to be heard scoffing anymore that this really isn’t so different from the seasonal flu, as bodies are stored in ice rinks and refrigerated trucks, and prison inmates are being recruited to dig mass graves. This is not like anything anyone alive today can compare it to.
In the second week of confinement, people around the world are registering a pervasive quiet in places that are bustling in normal times. A neighbour said to me that she had expected the absence of traffic and activity to be peaceful, but instead she finds it eerie and, paradoxically, dis-quieting. I think that’s because the quiet arises from nothing good: underlying it is the sinister sizzle of fear and apprehension, of the Grim Reaper making the rounds in 2020. I’m not finding the memes and gags so funny anymore.
In the sustained absence of incoming energy and stimulation in the the form of social interaction, I find I have a lot of work to do just to keep my spirits up. I don’t struggle to fill the many unstructured hours of the day. But I realised today, in the face of the long haul (if that means, say, another four to eight weeks of confinement), that I have nothing to look forward to. That is the way the thought came to me: in terms of “looking forward.” I went on to reflect on the degree to which, in normal times, my thought life and emotions are punctuated by events I look forward to, from going for a bike ride to seeing a movie to spending time with people I love. It could indeed be said that I lurch from one one happily anticipated event to another like in a join-the-dots picture, hopefulness giving me the emotional momentum to get through the stuff I don’t enjoy so much.
At the moment, there is a monotone hum to life. I enjoy going out for a walk, I enjoy doing yoga, I enjoy reading a book/talking to a friend on the phone/cooking while listening to a podcast. But I am going to do all those things again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after until… confinement is over (which, from the vantage point of today, feels almost unimaginable). No one is going to knock on my door or meet me for coffee or give me the bise as we bump into each other in the street. All of these daily interactions are forbidden.
Variability — much less the possibility of even a moderately pleasant surprise, in the midst of unrelievedly awful and heartbreaking news — is currently suspended. Into the social void rushes the sense of precious time — life-time — slipping by semi-neglected, in a sort of caretaker mode: waiting for it to be over. But even the days and hours making up confinement are once-in-a-lifetime, irretrievable. To wish them away in order to arrive at a moment when we will be turned loose at last is to squander them. Scanning the horizon for something to latch onto to propel us from the uncomfortable present into a future we hope will be better, doesn’t work right now.
So, as I think about mortality in general and my personal mortality in particular, I set myself the challenge of attending to these confined hours. I want to remember what I did during confinement — what it felt like, and how that compares to the time that comes after. For now, our freedom to do as we like is curtailed and this is unpleasant; however, we know there is a good reason why and, while we don’t know how long this constrained state will last, it will necessarily be finite. As Week Two wraps up and Week Three begins, a notion recurs to me that applies perfectly to this context. The notion was formulated by Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, based on his time spent in concentration camps during World War Two. Here is my paraphrasing of his idea: We cannot control everything that happens to us. What we do have control over is our response to what happens to us. This is the ultimate meaning of freedom, and something that no one can take away from us under any circumstances.
This is what I hope amounts to an antidote to passivity. The current pandemic reveals to us the degree to which we humans are on a collective journey, beginning with birth and ending with death — without exception. Here is the opportunity to focus on a moment in that story arc and to imbue it with meaning, such that we won’t look back on this uncertain time solely with regret.