The Ancient Modern
Isolation and Permanence During the Pandemic / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Along with the virus, anxiety has spread wildly over the world. Online gaming and pornography use have increased, which suggests that many are choosing to alleviate fear by temporarily “relocating” from present concerns into some kind of virtual world where Coronavirus does not exist.
At the same time, many have taken the opportunity afforded by increased isolation to think deeply about the culture we have created and what we can do to reinvigorate our communities and our souls.
If you’re like myself, you’re taking precautions but not panicking. You’re keeping in touch with loved ones by isolating together or by regular electronic communications that include humor as well as concern.
I have a few suggestions for how to spend the next few weeks wisely, gathered from what my friends are doing with their recently prescribed (or enforced) leisure.
A first step is a quiet return to reading. My mother complained a few months back that though she has been a life-long reader, she’s found herself less and less able to concentrate on the printed page. The phone rings, the computer beckons. How can the silence of paper compete in a digitally animated world? Putting the phone away for an hour in order to pick up a good book might help restore our ability to attend to the still, the simple and the silent. Re-read a childhood favorite? Finish a book you started but had to put down?
It’s spring, and this might be the year you decide to plant a garden. Flowers? Veggies? Mail-order seeds. Prepare a small garden bed you can see daily or easily access. Ornamental sunflowers, for example, give a spectacular return on a small investment. Spring-planted bulbs have an immediate return and come back year after year. Being outside increases Vitamin D and a general sense of connection with our wounded planet.
Get to know a poet. This involves reading as well, but is more meditative, more focused. Wikipedia is a click away. Research the poet’s life and read his or her poetry with the biography in mind. I’ve found that poetry can tell us more about particular times and places than the raw “facts” of history. So, if you happen to have a favorite historic moment—Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, Colonial India, the Qing Dynasty—find the poet or poets who emerged from that moment and immerse yourself in their words.
Metaphysical traditions have always incarnated themselves in specific, interactive forms. Perhaps this is the moment to memorize a traditional prayer or passage from a holy Scripture, and to incorporate a traditional practice. Meditative silence, recitation of short aphorisms, breathing exercises—these are universal means of uniting soul and body, common to all times and places.
Finally, let me suggest beginning (or increasing) a practice of journaling or keeping a diary. Writing changes the way we approach our own thoughts. We organize, consider, select, and express our inner life differently when writing than when spontaneously speaking or when worrying. Writing about confusion and anxiety can stimulate creativity, give us a way to connect with others, and help us to see our emotions as part of—but not dominating—ourselves.
When the pandemic subsides, will we be a wiser and more introspective culture? I think the answer to this question entirely depends on the private present choices we make while the social future is still unclear. I hope we emerge with the strength and resolve to live more deliberately, more liturgically, more poetically.
There will be other pandemics, other disasters, other mass disappointments and shifts in expectation. But great change reveals great, unchanging truths.
I hope my community will see this change as a call to re-center itself on the truly Permanent Things.