It seems to be part of human nature to postpone, for as long as possible, a realistic appraisal of looming catastrophe. At the start of the U.S. Civil War, both sides were so certain of a short, bloodless conflict that the first battle at Manassas was attended by hundreds of holiday picnickers from nearby Washington. Some sipped champagne, hoping to catch a glance what they assumed would be fleeting hostilities.
The initial U.S. response to COVID-19 followed a similar pattern, as many commentators suggested the initial Seattle area outbreak could be confined. As the infection spread to New York, New Orleans, and other cities, political and economic forecasters continued to predict only a brief lull in the nation’s business, followed by a “V-shaped recovery.”
While it has taken many weeks, most Americans have begrudgingly accepted a more accurate assessment of their predicament. It has finally sunk in that, whatever the future, it will likely be quite different from what we first imagined.
It is not simply that the need for social isolation forced wrenching and unpredictable changes in our private and work lives. Much larger forces have been set in motion, with personal implications too vast to calculate.
What does it mean, for example, that so many people are now accustomed to shopping, studying, playing, and doing their jobs online? Or that the federal government passed a multi-trillion bailout program on top of its existing $24 trillion deficit, with much more spending still likely to come? Or that the Chinese Communist Party is likely to resist any efforts to hold it accountable for its role covering up the initial outbreak in Wuhan?
If we are honest with ourselves, we must concede that even the most intelligent sounding supposition is just that: supposition. It’s an uncomfortable situation, to be sure. When we lack a clear vision of the future convincing enough to build upon, we, quite naturally, get nervous.
Yet however uncomfortable our situation is at present does not guarantee that it is permanent, or even exclusively bad. If past crises teach us anything, it’s that all chaotic times stabilize eventually.
One surprising outcome of these times is that some of the harsh political rhetoric of recent years seems to be less polarizing (despite efforts by cable news and campaign operatives to sustain familiar divides). It’s not that people are suddenly less concerned about important political issues, but it’s now less clear what constitutes a genuinely important political issue.
Just the economic fallout from the 1929 stock market crash eventually persuaded Northern industrial workers to end their historic alliance with management (based on a shared preference for high tariffs) and politically ally with Southern farmers as Democrats. Major socials upheavals have the potential to alter longstanding coalitions in ways that are not immediately obvious. As uncomfortable as a transitional period can be, it can at least dampen the urgency of partisan argument.
One compensation of being forced to focus on the present is the opportunity it presents to address things we’ve been putting off for far too long. Whether it is the need to finally change computer passwords, to sort tightly packed “junk drawers,” or clean out accumulated gutter leaves, catching up on postponed chores makes it possible to feel more relaxed at home than we have in years.
But the ultimate benefit of being forced to focus on the present — if we seize the opportunity — is the chance to pay greater attention to the higher things. As it says in Jeremiah 23:23-24, “Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off?” Or, in Psalm 118:24, with an emphasis on the joyful possibilities of focusing on the present: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
All this is not to say that everyone is consciously taking advantage of this moment, not when there’s so much still to see on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney Plus. But our country would be in a better place right now if we all took this moment to pray or meditate more often, read some of the spiritual classics, or simply contemplate the possibility of an invisible but ever-present God.
As Dr. Steve Taylor, senior lecturer in psychology at the UK’s Leeds Beckett University has observed, lengthy periods of confined activity can unintentionally “bring about a permanent shift in the way we relate to the world and the way we live.” As Taylor writes in Psychology Today:
There is no reason why we shouldn’t experience this kind of effect now, during the present period of confinement. Forced to [put] our future goals and ambitions on hold and … to spend more time in the present, paying attention to our surroundings and our experience … these weeks of quietness, solitude, and detachment [are] a kind of spiritual retreat – a taste of the way of life that monks follow.
In his classic 1902 study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James found that a disproportionate number of the world’s spiritual experiences happen to prisoners, hospital patients, the involuntarily unemployed, and others whose activities and prospects have been temporarily constrained.
Unfortunately, the spiritual blessings resulting from the current lockdown are not something we are ever likely to learn much about, at least beyond our own experience. Many of those most profoundly touched by their spiritual encounters will hesitate to talk about them because, as the late novelist Saul Bellow once said of such events, “there is nothing we can prove, our language is inadequate” — not to mention how modern secularism often makes people too embarrassed “to risk talking about it.”
Add to this reluctance the fact that the blessings of our current confinement are occurring simultaneously with great suffering and even premature death for some of the infected. No matter how much history tries to assure us that spiritual enlightenment and pain are often mysteriously linked, our natural discomfort with this paradox will make reporting one’s “lockdown enlightenment” that much more difficult.
When the coronavirus danger finally does pass, do not be surprised that the subsequent studies of its impact fail to record its deepest and most elevating consequences. The meaning of what Swiss psychiatrist and explorer Bertrand Piccard recently termed our “collective retreat [into] the present moment” is something we must be content to know only in the most personal terms.