In the midst of an America experiencing a collective breakdown, and in contemplation of a year spent secluded and struggling against a deadly virus, an article focused on the potential that isolation offers for self-renewal and growth….
by: Arthur Hoyle
The World Is Too Much With Us
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;-
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
— William Wordsworth (1807)
The coronavirus has been with us for a year, and while it has been devastating in scope, it has provided many lessons and laid many truths bare. We have learned that the virus is deadly and hard to control. We have learned that large swaths of the American people distrust science (doctors, it must be noted, are scientists) and are vulnerable to quack conspiracy theories and bald-face lies. We have learned that many Americans place their “personal freedoms” (i.e. their right to do as they please no matter how stupid it may be or dangerous to others) above all considerations of the common good, even if the common good is cooperation in the face of a deadly disease. We have learned that our health care providers, just by doing their jobs, are heroic. We have learned that our federal government, as presently constituted, prefers engaging in partisan warfare to serving the people it is paid to represent when they are in desperate need.
Amongst the many things COVID-19 has taught us is the truth about the frailty of our attachments. For the virus, by forcing us to live our daily lives under abnormal restrictions, has reminded us of what is essential in our lives, and what is discretionary, chosen because, in one way or another, it is pleasurable. The essentials are food, shelter, clothing, health care, clean air and water, sleep, some form of spiritual nourishment, and love. All else, no matter how pleasurable or habitual, is discretionary, nice if you can get it, but not necessary for survival. Most of our activities and habits have come to seem essential to us because we have woven them into the fabric of our lives and become attached to them. The pandemic is so disruptive psychologically because it forces us to relinquish behaviors that we think of as customary and necessary, and that form part of our identity as social beings.
The inventory of non-essentials to which we have become attached is lengthy, and encompasses much of what we think of as our culture, our civilization. Almost all of it involves socialization — being around others. Our physical presence at movie theaters, plays, concerts, museums, lectures, sporting events, houses of worship, family gatherings, parties, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs has been severely restricted over the course of the pandemic, and at times entirely prohibited. These distractions, entertainments, socializations, and learning experiences, when suddenly placed off limits leave us with a sense of shrunken lives, of diminished identity. Their loss is, to say the least, disorienting. The losses make some people depressed and anxious, and they make many people angry, disposed to deny that their loss, however temporary, is necessary, and that the cause for it is real. This anger is being channeled into socially disruptive behavior that is destabilizing our society. America is experiencing a nervous breakdown. It does not help that the person our political system selected four years ago to lead us through these dark times, Donald Trump, is an incompetent who trivialized COVID from the onset and assured Americans it would simply disappear, like magic. As many foreign observers have noted with a mixture of shock and dismay, America is not responding well to its present crisis.
The reason for this may be that as a people we lack the inner resources to let go of our attachments, if only temporarily, focus on the essentials that remain within our grasp, and be grateful for them.
Most Americans have enough food. We don’t need to go to restaurants to eat, although there is no denying that a restaurant meal with family members or friends is very pleasurable. But it can also be pleasurable to plan and prepare meals at home, to develop cooking into an art that we can share with others close to us. We don’t have to eat TV dinners because restaurants are closed. If we make the attempt to be creative with food, we will find ourselves more grateful that we have it. There are many resources easily found on the Internet that provide simple, inexpensive, interesting recipes to intrigue your palate, challenge your pantry, and send you to the grocery store with a sense of excitement. I especially recommend The New York Times.
Fashion is another casualty of the coronavirus. People like to shop for clothes and wear them as self-defining statements. Most of us have wardrobes selected for the different social activities that fill up our days. We have outfits we wear to work, outfits we wear to parties, outfits we wear when exercising, outfits we wear when lounging around our homes. But why spend hours scouring retail malls in search of a dazzling new outfit if you can’t display yourself in a bar or a restaurant? I’ve been wearing the same basic stay-at-home outfit for a year: a T-shirt (I change it every day), a pullover shirt for warmth, a pair of North Face hiking pants (shorts in warmer weather), and zorries or slippers. When I go out to the grocery store or to take a hike, I “dress up” by putting on walking shoes and a baseball cap. The dreary sameness of this outfit, worn day after day, has made me realize the vanity housed in my closet. I’m now like the soldier in his fort or the monk in his monastery, forced to go inward to find my identity instead of fabricating it every day with a costume.
Our cultural deprivations are more difficult to replace. The experience of attending a live performance of a play, of sitting with others in a crowded movie theater or concert hall, of attending a sporting event with thousands of other fans, bonds us, makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, places us in a stream of commonly shared values. In short, these experiences give us a feeling of belonging. As these communal experiences have lapsed, people have sought other communities, many of them based on warped values — suspicion, distrust, fear, anger. They rally around secret, coded banners, symbols, and slogans that give them a sense of unique identity, that keep them from feeling abandoned and marginalized. They become vulnerable to their own darkest impulses and plunge into an irrational world.
But we have other options. Our isolation gives us opportunities for self-renewal, opportunities that always existed but whose pull was weak compared to the draw of our more habitual, and social, recreations. Instead of attending a concert, why not learn to play a musical instrument, a guitar or a recorder, or even the keyboard? Free online lessons abound, and there are also tuition-based virtual courses. Take up painting or drawing. Watercolor is a user-friendly medium that does not require the use of expensive paints, canvases, and brushes. The writer Henry Miller took up watercolor painting as a hobby, a way to relax after a long day at his typewriter, and came to love it more than his writing.
Or photography — all you need is a phone! Photography is a marvelous medium for sharpening one’s powers of observation, for noticing the beauty of the ordinary. There are beautiful things all around us, waiting to be truly seen, and the flow of life offers us random patterns of color, light, and shade that can be composed into aesthetically pleasing forms. The camera can also be a companion on solitary walks through the city or the countryside, encouraging you to become an active observer of your environment rather than a passive transient through it.
What these activities have in common is that they are done in isolation from others and bring us into a state of solitude, a state in which we can be with ourselves while we are doing. They are meditative activities that free us from our addictive attachments to externals, to routines that we perform on autopilot out of dependency.
Not into creative endeavors? What about learning a new language? Acquiring language skills exercises our brains. Is there a foreign country you’d like to visit when COVID allows? Get a foothold in the culture by learning to speak basic transactional sentences and phrases. This endeavor has the added benefit of social interaction, if only virtual. Maybe you have a friend or acquaintance who speaks the language you want to learn. Or maybe you can connect with someone online, maybe someone from another country who wants to learn English. Use Zoom to have conversational practice and get tips about life in their country of origin. This can be fun and even lead to new relationships. Another option for a social activity done virtually is chess.
Americans as a people are not comfortable with idleness. We must keep busy so as to feel useful, productive, plugged in to the larger social machine of which we are a part. But idleness is a condition for creativity, for discovery, for realization. The pandemic, by forcing isolation on us, by breaking our habits of busyness, our attachments, has given us an unfamiliar freedom that many people resist exercising because they are uncomfortable being with themselves. But experiencing the isolated self, free of attachments, can bring us to a new dimension of ourselves and liberate us from what the poet William Blake called “the mind forged manacles.”
In arguing that the pandemic has presented us, as individuals, with a unique opportunity for self-renewal, I do not mean to gloss over the very real harm that this disease is causing to people’s health and economic well-being. Over the past year, our federal government has been shamefully cavalier and dismissive about COVID’s threat. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from this disease, and millions more have endured severe compromises to their health. Millions are struggling to meet their basic needs for food and shelter. Our country possesses the wealth to prevent this, and it is our disgrace that we have not done so. But in spite of these stresses and the suffering they are causing, the opportunity to become psychologically free of attachment to non-essentials remains. If this opportunity were seized by enough people, our country could be transformed out of its absurdist cycle of endless production and consumption and into a sane and sustainable way of life that would truly permit “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all Americans.
Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, is now available.