"Any idiot can face a crisis - it's this day to day living that wears you out"
Anton Chekhov 1860-1904
The coronavirus lockdown has tossed us into a new landscape of profound uncertainty. For me, it’s been accompanied by a myriad of emotions, along with heaps of anxiety and a level of fatigue unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Regardless of how much sleep I’m getting, I’m always tired. How insightful was Chekhov.
Be assured, I’ve taken to heart all the practical advice that’s out there about dealing with the day to day – exercise, make sure to have a routine, get out of those PJs and re-invent what it means to socialize.
But I continue to feel ‘maladjusted’. I realized this wasn’t something one can just vanquish with a ‘to-do list’. After reading an article that advised, “Don’t let the quarantine slip through your fingers,” I realized this was a test, a test of character. And it was a test I didn’t want to fail.
Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankel, devoted his life to studying and understanding satisfaction and fulfillment. His famous book, "Man’s Search for Meaning", reminds us that we don’t get to choose our difficulties, but we do have the freedom to select our responses.
What I was looking for was not as tangible as finally getting around to reading "War and Peace" or baking bread, as seems to be in fashion these days. All worthwhile projects, but it felt deeper than that.
Dad had a deep affection for the writings of Marcel Proust. Beside his bed he kept a beautifully bound three volume, boxed set of "Remembrance of Things Past" accompanied by Alain de Bottom’s "How Proust Can Improve your Life". They now both reside on my night table.
Dick had marked a few pages where de Bottom wrote of a fascinating answer by Proust to a Parisian newspaper on what we should do in the face of a near-certain death.
L’Intransigeant had the habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. In the heat of the 1922 summer, the paper offered a particularly elaborate question:
“An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed …..death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people…. what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm?”
“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.
But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”
The question of what makes a good life is one for the ages, it’s also a personal one. What makes a difference to me might not make a difference to you. Alain de Bottom wrote that Proust understood a lesson we all too often forget in the pursuit of goals and ambitions: the value of life is the sum of its everyday moments. Life is fragile.
I’ve decided this time of isolation and disruption is a precious opportunity for me to reflect and learn (and it is a learning process) to adjust priorities. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s writing on why presence matters more than productivity. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Maybe it is time to turn off my cell phone. Keep still. Be present.
In the past when I have thought life looked bleak and hopeless and I would bemoan to my Dad, “Things are never going to be the same ever again”. His wise reply would be: “You’re right it never will be, but maybe it will be even better.”