Life is not just what happens to us. It is what it is, people say, when fate dumps on us. But life is also how we see it, what we bring to each experience. So even when we’re hit with something blatantly bad, we’re still free in the way we understand what it means. Nothing has to be seen as a total disaster. (Even death, but that’s another topic.) With many thousands of fatalities and many millions economically wrecked from the pandemic, we are challenged. But a great Stoic philosopher once said, it’s not what happens to us that ultimately matters but how we interpret what happens.
The pandemic has sent us into social isolation. Forbidden contact with others, we have to stay at home—if we have one. It’s as though we’ve all been told to live in solitary confinement. That’s going to be a problem for people who find it hard to be alone, not to be actively engaged with others, not to enjoy the benefits of feedback. Without those external supports the sense of our identity can start to wilt. (The first sign of this may be not knowing what day of the week it is.)
Again, I want to remind us that we can also see the enforced solitude as an opportunity, a chance to learn something new, a test that could bring out talents you never knew you had. When adversity first hits, all we see are its negative effects. But there may be better ways to interpret the experience. We don’t have to be locked down in our minds. In fact, we should take the occasion to remind ourselves of the powerful nature of our minds.
Suddenly we have time to think, and to think freely our own thoughts about our own life--that could be the start of a new type of liberation. “Though I were bounded in a nutshell, I would count myself king of infinite space,” is a line from Shakespeare that speaks to me in my home-bound state. Most of the time what we’re thinking is constrained by our duties, our habits, and the people around us.
Remove those constraints, and take a deep breath of pure mental freedom. Venture to think for yourself as you never have before. Taste the joy of an unleashed imagination and be fearless about revising your own self-understanding. How often do you get a chance to do this? We do have habitual views of ourselves that may be creaky and inadequate. Perhaps it takes a pandemic to shake us out of our stale, unexamined notion of who, what, and why we are.
Our bodies may be immobilized, but not our high spirits. Up against the wall before the executioner, one can still give him the finger! Arrested and confined in space is not to be confused with being arrested and confined in mind. In fact, as the poet of the Katha Upanishad said, “Sitting still, he travels very far.” Think of the novel coronavirus pandemic as a rather callous way of nature stopping the automatic movements of human organisms everywhere; a way of putting the great frenzied mode of human life on hold; a program to help us rethink the premises of our very existence.