There are plenty of articles about how bad COVID-19 is and how unprepared we are. This isn’t one of those articles.
The illness will cause major disruption and kill people we love. There’s no getting around it. But the same country where the illness originated can also teach us about coping with it.
One of the fundamental insights in both Taoism and Buddhism is that any occurrence or state of being contains the kernel of its opposite.
In the spirit of silver linings, here are several possible benefits I can see.
THE PLANET GETS A BREATHER
A sudden, radical decrease in industry and travel seems already to be showing positive environmental effects. In Hubei province, CNN tells us air quality was 20% better in February 2020 than February 2019. Further, satellite images from space show a substantial drop in nitrogen oxide emissions in China, with customary layers of smog radically diminished and in some cases wholly absent.
Granted, this is likely a blip on the screen of climate change. Industry will ramp back up as soon as the virus recedes or an effective vaccine is developed. Nonetheless, if you feel as if the world is ending, it’s worth remembering that in some respects, at least environmentally, the earth is actually improving. At least for these few months.
GOOD DRY-RUN FOR NEXT, MORE VIRULENT PANDEMIC
Again, this is not to diminish the deaths and widespread suffering caused by COVID-19. But maybe this first truly global experience of a pandemic during the hyper-connected age will give us valuable experience, memory, and vocabulary about how to shut down and shelter in place.
As bad as COVID-19 is, with mortality rate apparently somewhere in the 1% to 3% range, it’s easy to imagine future viral outbreaks with an even higher mortality rate. With the experience of COVID-19 under our belts, we will have collective memory about best practices for hunkering down. We will know what terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘quarantine’ really consist of, and how they are best implemented.
We will also know how to occupy ourselves and keep ourselves sane when suddenly told to hibernate for an indefinite amount of time.
A MOMENT TO SLOW DOWN AND DO LESS
To me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the shutdown. As busy and harried as we may feel in our daily lives, that busy-ness is also the reality we know and are accustomed to. Sudden deceleration causes profound disorientation and stress. Mental health becomes fragile. The routines we normally count on to give us a sense of meaning, normalcy, and productiveness are suddenly taken away. We are cooped up in the same house with teenagers, parents, cousins, or friends, each of whom is struggling to adapt to the new reality. If you have a teenaged child, there is no better, more explosive topic for the age-old parent-teenager control battle than differing understandings of what ‘social distancing’ means.
The difficulty of staying home seems particularly acute in the hyperconnected age. We are so used to frenetic activity and consumption. It’s a major shift. And when all the news relates to a lethal new virus, there are endless possibilities for internal narratives of fear and negativity.
Sitting still is hard. Hibernating can be a pain in the ass. As Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
But here too the Chinese gave us a gift. The ancient wisdom of Lao-Tsu and other Taoists exalts the value of stillness. “Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.”
Practice kindness, first toward yourself and then toward others.
If we start to remember what our ancient ancestors knew how to do – hibernate – there are treats waiting for us. At least according to Kafka, who once wrote:
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
I have no actual clue what Kafka was talking about. But even if we don’t get the rolling ecstasy, it’s still valuable to learn the discipline of sitting still. That skill can serve each of us long after the current crisis subsides.
ITALY SHOWS US HOW
Quarantines do not have to be miserable, cabin-fever situations. Hilarious and uplifting videos show Italians keeping their sense of humor in the face of national lockdown. Whether it’s an entire block of apartment residents singing Macarena in unison from their windows or next-door neighbors playing paddle tennis from adjacent windows, the rest of us get to see the possibilities for humor, exercise, creativity, and community during an even more strict lockdown than ours.
Italy has also given us a fantastic TV show to binge-watch – My Brilliant Friend (HBO). Subtitles, yes, but worth the effort. (Italy could do us a further solid by releasing all of Season 2 right now during the COVID-19 crisis instead of delivering one episode per week.)
Three other shows I’ve loved during this forced break – the Jim Carey show Kidding, the Apple TV show The Morning Show, and I Am Not Okay With This on Netflix.
YOUR NEXT FAVORITE SHOW OR BOOK IS BEING WRITTEN RIGHT NOW
Apparently Shakespeare wrote several of his best plays while holed up during plague outbreaks. It stands to reason, the same will happen now. Somewhere the next Breaking Bad or Hamilton or Astral Weeks is being born right now.
Then again, the plague wasn’t all good, in Shakespeare land. As author Ben Cohen points out, it was a plague quarantine which kept Romeo from knowing about the plan to sedate Juliet temporarily. He then mistook the sedated J for a dead J and killed himself. She woke up and followed suit. This was a colossal bummer. (I worry My Brilliant Friend is hurtling toward similar heartbreak and tragedy.)
ANOTHER PHOTO-OF-EARTH MOMENT
Certain moments live on, whether the Kennedy assasination, the moon landing, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, or the lone Chinese protester staring down a tank. These moments make an impression on the collective psyche. The first photo of Earth taken from space had a similar effect. It was a stunningly beautiful reminder of our global experience, our shared residence on this highly improbable Goldlilocks planet in the middle of vast darkness. The photo is credited with helping to galvanize early environmental awareness and action.
Perhaps COVID-19 has similar downstream benefits. Though the current impulse is to wall off, close down, and isolate, going forward we’ll have the collective experience not only of what this time felt like, but also of what created the situation in the first place – our inescapable, intimate connection to one another.
COVID-19 is a dramatic reminder that what happens in China or the U.S. quickly affects Ecuador, Kenya, and Canada. What is learned in Italy or India may be immediately valuable to Russia, Israel, or Iran.
Our lives went from warp speed to slow-motion, seemingly overnight. It’s driving many of us crazy.
But here too the ancients may be helpful. The writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius remind us that the event itself doesn’t cause the terror, anxiety, and sadness. It’s our relationship to the event. It’s how we think about the situation. Shakespeare made the same point in Hamlet – “there is nothing either good or bad/But thinking makes it so.”
So even as I stockpile food, wash my hands 40 times a day, and keep six feet away from people, I’m trying to think about … how I think about COVID-19.
It’s not all bad. Some good will come from it.
In the meantime, I’m tending to my mental health, which is just as important as physical health. I’m staying in touch with family, I’m walking outside, I’m coming up with new routines to replace old ones. I’m trying to learn some Spanish. And while I do all of that, the planet itself – of which we humans are only a tiny, tiny part – gets a sudden, unplanned, badly needed breath of fresh air.