Childhood, for the fortunate among us, often conjures idyllic memories of seemingly infinite stretches of time. Children are insatiably curious and inexhaustible. Early memories are a montage of innocent exploration of new experiences. Catching fireflies, licking frosting from the beater, splashing in a creek or the surf. Saturday morning cartoons, sleeping in, endless games of capture the flag, reading in secret by flashlight- all things many of us long for in a world that seems hellbent on ripping our most precious resource, time, away from us. “May you live in interesting times” is an ancient curse with Chinese roots, seemingly much like the predicament our species finds itself in. For increasingly wide swaths of the global population, we once again find ourselves with a surfeit of treasured time. Truly, the wistful wishes of so many have been granted in a particularly interesting manner. We find ourselves imprisoned by something that only weeks ago represented unfettered freedom.
Daily routines have been ground into a flat line that stretches further out with every news update. Absent the bread and circuses of constant sports entertainment or window shopping retail therapy, we’ve turned to the hollow comfort of bingeing television, including a show about a jungle cat monarchy. Our tribal signifiers have been ripped away from us. Work, for better or worse, is a major identifier for people the world over. Even for those that are fortunate to be deemed essential or able to work from home, the seismic changes in what job descriptions have mutated into results in stress, confusion and fear as common denominators. The ritual of cheering together for the local assembly of uniformed athletes seems like a hazy memory from the endless summer of childhood. Our at-risk family members, if we’re lucky enough to live in the same area, are visited from the opposite side of a window in some perversion of a human zoo. Instead of gearing up for a summer of barbecues, we’re learning how to make sourdough.
Fermentation is a magical thing, a gift from the gods, that allows us to take meager ingredients and turn them into the stuff of legends. It simply takes time, of which we find ourselves in abundance. Our collective mythology is replete with figures finding enlightenment in the wilderness. From the desert of increasingly hollow diversions, we have all been afforded an invitation to metamorphosis.
It’s a fearful prospect, and it’s little surprise that televisions have been aglow for weeks on end. In times of uncertainty, the easiest choice is to not choose.
For those unaccustomed to solitude or quiet, the potential of the time afforded seems more like a yawning chasm than a sea of possibility just waiting for us to dip a toe. We do not have to redefine ourselves as a people; circumstances and historians will manage that for us. We do, however, have to refine ourselves as a people. No matter the circumstances of this pandemic, it has laid bare where so many of our institutions are lacking. It has laid bare our identity, which hangs limp at the top of the pole, lacking the breeze of a job, of habits, of communal ritual. Being given magnitudes of free time should be the greatest gift possible, not a prison sentence.
While schools and universities have been forced to create virtual classrooms, they’re late to a party that’s been going on for years. Platforms like Coursera and Khan Academy offer the seeds of a rich garden. This is truly a time for the curious to thrive. The kitchen, often a stranger to so many, is one of the truest friends a hermit could have. The vast logistical network of modernity provides means that the paints, models and puzzles you never had time for are just waiting to be completed. The music in your fingertips can find a voice with a quick search of craigslist. The digital arms of libraries are ready to hold us close. The open plains of a blank page are begging for whole herds of stories to crash over them. The quiet long moments are an invitation to observe and reach towards serenity with slow, measured breath.
The primary tenet of Stoicism is in understanding that which you cannot control, cannot control you. No one is forcing anyone to calmly observe the potential of time and let it germinate and bloom into something beautiful anymore than we are held at gunpoint to keep up with the Kardashians. The coronavirus is nothing short of a challenge, one that will pass regardless of how we respond to it. Every challenge, however, comes with its own gifts for those that seek them. It’s impossible to seek anything with our heads in the sand.