What quarantine taught me
A/N: Before I begin, the last point on this article is unequivocally the most important. If you’d rather not read this whole thing, I understand, but I’d like it if you read the last one. Thanks. — A
I’ve been finding it difficult to write these days. I watched a YouTube video a couple of weeks ago (maybe it was a month ago? What is time?) that spoke about the absolute deluge of poems and songs and art about World War I, yet the notable lack of art about the Spanish Flu, which happened in the same time period and claimed more lives. I think there’s something in a pandemic and a quarantine, and the corresponding lack of inspiration and external connection, that makes us uncreative.
As the county I now live in prepares to enter its next phase of reopening, I feel a strange sense of graduation or commencement. I’ve hardly written a word in two months other than on local recovery policy recommendations. Instead, I’ve been called deeply inwards, dug down into parts of my psyche I hadn’t realized before were unexplored, and come out with fistfuls of muck and gems I never knew were in me before.
This is what quarantine taught me:
We cannot predict the future.
Our ideas of the future are projections of our memories of the past; they have no bearing on what the future will actually be. Your worst fears will probably not come to pass, at least not in the way you expect. Your hopes and desires will probably arrive looking radically different than you think they will. The point is: don’t trust your mind when it comes to the future.
Many of the things we do are done for the wrong reasons. They are therefore the wrong things to do.
There’s no good reason not to question why we do everything we do. So many of our actions are unconscious defenses against attacks that don’t exist. We do them for Ego, for control, to feel safe against an arbitrary threat we’ve concocted in our minds. Instead, we can learn ourselves and our motivations deeply, so that we can act consciously to meet our goals rather than, more or less, flailing.
If the future isn’t real yet, and we can’t know what it is, then the best we can do is to create a beautiful present. I’m not talking about Epicureanism; I’m talking about building now what we want the future to be filled with. To act from a place of love and joy, passion and excitement, care and curiosity, and do only the things we can authentically do from that place.
When we seek a feeling of duty or obligation, we’re actually looking for community.
“Have to’s” and “musts” arise in our experience not because we really have to do anything in particular, but because believing that our actions are obligations makes us feel that what we’re doing is important to more than just ourselves. We either feel guilt for who we are and seek duty to absolve ourselves of some Great Sin of Existing, or we feel purposeless and seek duty to remind ourselves that we matter to others. The real sense of meaning in our actions comes from feeling their reverberations in the world around us.
The sense of duty or obligation make us feel connected to community. What we’re actually looking for is just, well, connection to community. Rather than continuing to oblige ourselves to duties in order to have a sense of meaning, we can take actions that build connection and community directly.
Planting vegetable gardens isn’t a bad idea.
I mean this both literally and as a metaphor.
Metaphorically, slowing down and exploring the basics of your survival is a profoundly healing activity for humans trapped in a dystopian consumer technological hell-scape. In rich countries, many of us take our basic necessities for granted, and therefore devote little thought or energy to them. Food, shelter, water, energy, warmth — these things are handled by other people in other places. Prioritizing them ourselves, from gardening to water collection cooking to human connection, is a profound way to feel more alive, healthy and whole.
Literally — our exploitative and unsustainable global supply chains are at risk of disruption and collapse. We need food security for every community. We need resilient energy and regenerative ways to meet our basic needs. So, plant some herbs, veggies and pollinators. Set up a rainwater catchment system. Get some solar panels if you can — slap them on your roof or give them to your local community center. We cannot predict the future, but we can take actions that both improve our present and make our communities more resilient to the unpredictable future.
We cannot force anyone else to be comfortable with who they are or what they feel. We can be comfortable with who they are and what they feel.
We can also be comfortable with who we are and what we feel.
I had a guess about quarantine that’s seemed to prove true so far: spending a couple of months stuck with ourselves, with far fewer distractions than normal, would get us to dissolve some of our bullshit. We’d return to socializing hungry for real human connection, from a space of genuine acceptance and curiosity about one another. We’d been cut off from our usual distractions and been pushed to learn more about ourselves, to meet ourselves with curiosity and acceptance. I don’t know to what extent this process has happened for everyone, but I’ve already seen it happen for just about every human I’ve interacted with since April.
We cannot force anyone to accept themselves, but we can still accept them. We can interact from a desire to learn about them just as they are, rather than with judgment.
The self is a costume.
Your conceptions aren’t you. Your tastes and desires and fears and hopes and wants and needs aren’t you. They simply wash over you as life unfolds. You are like the beach beneath the ebb and flow of the tide.
Don’t hold too tightly to them, but do enjoy them when and where you can. Putting on a costume is an exercise in aesthetics and expression. You can enjoy putting yourself on and taking yourself off, switching everything you think you are like an outfit. You can explore this costume self, decorate it, see how it looks reflected back in different mirrors.
It’s all the more enjoyable when you remember that the costume isn’t you.
This is such a farce, yet somehow the suffering still feels real.
Every time I read the news, I get the image of commedia dell’arte masks. Headlines feel like bizarre and grotesque caricatures, the absolute contrast between what we prioritize and what actually matters laid bare. It feels like the world is boiling something clean, and all the gunk is right there on the surface right now. Watching the play of global politics unfold feels like watching some not-very-funny farce. It would be hilarious if the suffering underneath it weren’t so very real.
There is a wisdom in laughing at the world and at yourself, and perhaps that wisdom comes from a yogic understanding of the eternal reality beneath this illusory world. For whatever reason, we’re still thrown into this fluctuating incarnation. The fate of any spiritual seeker is to wrestle with the dissonance — the knowledge that none of this is real, and the experience that it is.
Be it privilege or the solipsism that comes from quarantine, these days, I find myself laughing at it more and angry at it less. The more I laugh, the more I can work to change the world from a place of love, joy and mutual aid, rather than from a place of desperation and pain.
Systems are like currents. Slowing down gives us the chance to look at them, but it alone does not stop them.
There was a naively hopeful part of me that thought everything would just stop all spring. Not only would pub crawls and haircuts stop, but so would racism. So would exploitation. So would extraction and abuse, fearful control, oppression and violence.
Of course, this is not the case. Black and Indigenous people are dying at higher rates while being more heavily and brutally policed. Elected officials have called this quarantine a great time to push through new pipelines because environmentalists can’t go out to protest them. Even a global pandemic won’t stop ICE. The current doesn’t stop just because some parts of the world have slowed down.
But what I pray this time has given to a critical mass of people is the time and space to stick their head above water for a moment. To look at this current we are all trapped in, and how our swimming in it only makes it go faster. I pray we take this breath of air as a chance to notice our direction and start swimming fast and hard the other way.
Giving love is the safest thing we can do.
Taking time to care for the world around us is the unequivocal best path to safety. In giving love, we make the world more loving. In giving care, we make the world more caring. In giving compassion, we make the world more compassionate. In sharing food and writing love letters, in accepting and supporting one another, in undertaking small or large acts of service, we unwittingly and always engage in mutual aid.
What giving love, even in the face of disaster, proves to us is that nothing can take away our right to be loving. No force can stop us from shining light in dark places, bringing color to pale bleakness, breathing life in the face of death. In giving love, we strengthen the bonds of community and we enrich the fabric of the whole world.
To give love is our inalienable birthright. Reminding ourselves that nothing, and I mean nothing, can take that right away is the most powerful sense of safety I have ever experienced.