You desire to know the art of living, my friend?
It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.
—Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881)
For some of us, the stay-home orders in the coronavirus pandemic might have begun as a bit of a lark—a pajama day that stretches into weeks, then months, and maybe even years. When we slept in until lunchtime, or skipped our showers, or didn’t shave for a week, why, it was our civic duty, with a public-health directive to prove it. Like an extended summer vacation, but without the toilet paper.
As we head into the second month, and several months more (at least) it is starting to look like a very real possibility, it’s beginning to feel less like Risky Business and more like Last Year at Marienbad. Hotel California, for real: you can check out, but you can never leave.
So far, my wife and I have managed to avoid starvation or domestic violence, and we’ve developed a workable division of household labor. But things are feeling not just different, but distinctly unnatural.
I went through a period of extremely strange nightmares: not just my usual anxiety dreams of finding myself in pajamas on the way to give a major public speech that I hadn’t prepared for, or strapped into a car with no brakes speeding down a winding mountain road. Now I was waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming that I had been stuffed into a huge floppy hat by a giant, who was squeezing me to suffocation. Another night, I was waking up every two hours, each time forgetting where I was and how I got there. Was this really our bedroom, or somewhere else? Who is that in the bed with me? Am I still dreaming, or…?
Our time-management skills, shall we say, are also suffering. I’ll put the milk in the fridge and realize that the shelves really need cleaning. So, whatever I was doing will have to wait while I spontaneously empty out the refrigerator and methodically clean everything.
Another time, I got an irrational sense of satisfaction out of refolding and reorganizing my tee-shirt shelf in the closet. The other day, my wife asked if I’d noticed anything unusual about the shower. Uh, no, should I have?
“Did you look at the track where the sliding door is? It was disgusting! I cleaned it with a toothbrush and vinegar! See how much better it looks?”
I almost blurted, “Why would you suddenly decide you needed to do that?” Then out loud I said, “Thanks, it’s really a big improvement.”
Desperate attempts to impose a little order on the terrifying chaos of a global health emergency. Too many people, though, don’t have the luxury of complaining how tidy their house is. It’s easy to disparage, and I often do, Donald Trump’s dereliction and mendacity in resisting masks and stay-home orders, then recommending them, then blaming governors for not lifting them, and finally fomenting armed resistance against them (yes, he really did this.)
Setting aside his unprincipled hypocrisy, even we partisans must acknowledge that it’s not all greedy businessmen, right-wing governors, Astroturf gun fanatics and #MAGA-clad know-nothings pushing to reopen the American economy.
Even this partial and temporary shutdown is impossible and unsustainable for thousands of businesses and millions of people who don’t have the luxury of working at home. Or who, unlike us, might be home-schooling young children while trying to care for elderly and infirm relatives. Or fending off landlords banging down the door for their rent. Or the transit-dependent.
Or front-line workers, from first-responders to the grocery employees who are keeping us fed with fresh and affordable food. Or lonely singles, starved by social distancing from human companionship, like the friend who plaintively wrote that she hadn’t had a hug from anyone in more than a month.
Public health demands that we mask up and press on to keep flattening the curve and driving down the infection rate until it’s safe enough to relax the restrictions without reigniting an even more lethal second round of contagion. Yet it feels increasingly like we’re in a race against time: can we defeat the virus before we crack emotionally or collapse financially?
When we finally get to the other side of this, we will find a world that has been permanently transformed. But have we? Will we be more kind, more generous, more mindful, more grateful?
How will we “make use of our suffering?”