Turn off the distractions before you waste this time

letter to the editor

“One upside to this disruption is that people may think twice about what their future looks like.”

Words not from this week, but over a decade ago. In the midst of the global financial crisis, this observation from my philosophy professor struck me as insensitive and out of touch. Yet, I have kept returning to it over the past two weeks. Of course, this is not to trivialize the suffering and death (not to mention economic downturn) occurring due to the CoViD-19 pandemic. However, it is certain that we will endure extreme social distancing and isolation for perhaps over a year. How should we spend this time?

I recently came across a list of 100 things to do while in isolation—ranging from “finally read Ulysses” to “look at photos of puppies.” As Aristotle observed, humans do need rest and recreation from time to time (and my Switch has logged quite a few miles), but I would suggest activities which maintain a sense of normalcy and divert our attention may be the worst waste of a quarantine. 

As a philosophy professor, I have suffered the fate of virtually all philosophers—few people taking our questions seriously. “What is your purpose?” is always met with the favorite answer of undergrads: “everyone has their own opinion” (as if the wheel is being reinvented). Well, that is undeniable, but some of us have spent more time thinking through our own opinions and having them critically examined by others. An opportunity for exactly this has just crashed into our lives. We are not being dragged out of the “cave” like Plato’s prisoner, rather our bubble of daily work and socializing has been violently popped. Philosophy is said to be born out of leisure, which will be abundant for some trapped in their houses (and an epidemic particularly raises crucial questions).

There is some “plague literature” in philosophy, exemplified in the eponymous The Plague by Albert Camus (which is seeing a recent spike in sales). It tells of a fictional outbreak of plague in the (real) Algerian city of Oran, resulting in a sudden and prolonged quarantine (after the authorities initially refuse to accept the reality of the threat—sound familiar?) For a novel about such a sensational subject, much of it consists of characters waiting—the restlessness, angst, and loneliness from seemingly endless isolation (favorite themes of the existentialist tradition). For Camus (and other thinkers), this is the genuine state of all humans—it’s just that everyday life with newspapers, jobs, errands, and entertainment masks it. We are all feeling anxiety these days, but perhaps this is not inherently bad. My own professor suggested that the Great Recession would remind us that wealth is not guaranteed (and perhaps a life purely devoted to moneymaking might seem less desirable). It would be a shame to endure extreme social distancing without having grown from it.

Unsurprisingly, one motif in plague literature is awareness of mortality (most concisely portrayed in Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, although obviously a key theme in The Plague). The fact our time is limited is something we often ignore, trivialize, or speak of in purely abstract terms (“all humans will die,” not “I will die one day”). Several philosophers have tackled the question of mortality in different ways: being mortal is the only way to have a meaningful life, death deserves little or no attention, or facing death awakens our need for a higher power. As a professor, I am neutral when it comes to the answer. But, it is not partisan to note that the fact our health, our wealth, and our lives will not last forever should be acknowledged—in an authentic way—by each human.

Naturally, one needn’t dwell solely on mortality—what should we do with the time we do have? I often begin my ethics courses by asking my students what would ultimately make their lives worthwhile. I’d like to ask them now: were your lives before this pause headed in the right direction? Should you change your major? Now that we are cut off from meeting in the flesh, how much of your life involved social interaction and was this is a good thing? When teaching Aristotle on friendship, I always ask my students if social networking and Skype can fulfill the “contact” which he asserts is the lifeblood of relationships. Some research among psychologists (adherents of “social presence theory”) are suggesting not, although we can consider the following weeks an experiment.

Camus saw plague as embodying (among other things) the random character of nature: “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” Indeed, viruses are “stupid,” as philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts it: mechanically reproducing and incidentally killing thousands. However, the impressively quick scientific response to CoViD-19 reminds us of how effectively humans have conquered nature. The heroism of The Plague is found in the volunteers who, being aware of our common lot, wage a futile battle against death itself—bringing to mind the selfless deeds of countless admirable health workers (or even just good citizens embracing the isolation without grumble). On the other hand, some thinkers have drawn a less-secular lesson from natural catastrophes. For Rousseau, the Lisbon Earthquake was not proof of God’s indifference, much less nonexistence, but human hubris. He claimed we were not meant to live so closely packed (a question currently raised by areas hit hard by the current pandemic) and we should not expect nature to interrupt her routines for us. Some commentators are already looking beyond the pandemic to how our habits will be permanently changed—of course the wildlife farming industry, but also remote work, hygiene, travel, prioritizing medical care, population concentration, disaster preparedness, etc. And who can deny it is refreshing to see the pollution clear over the skies of China and Italy?

The fact we must obey historic isolation measures is not a good thing, but we can turn some of this mud into gold. In the age of Netflix and Skype, the distraction of everydayness may not even be stopped with quarantine. Instead of binge-watching a series or racing through a game, it might be worth slowing down and turning off the distractions while we still can.

– Daniel Clements, professor of philosophy

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