Even for those who continue their professional life working online, schedules have become more flexible. Demands have retreated. Daily routines have been interrupted. We suddenly have unstructured, free-floating, beckoning time. This terrible disaster has freed us from the prison of our time-driven lives. At least for a few months, we have the chance to slow down. In the past, we’ve had little opportunity to do so, swept along by the rushing tide of prosperity and speed in the modern world.
What might be regained with a less hurried life? First, as many people have noted and as I discussed in my book In Praise of Wasting Time, there is simply the needed replenishment of mind that comes from doing nothing in particular, from taking long mental walks without destination, from finding a few moments of quiet away from the noise of the world. The mind needs to rest. The mind needs periods of calm. Such a need has been recognized for thousands of years. It was described as early as 1500 B.C., in the meditation traditions of Hinduism. Later in Buddhism. An ancient passage from the Buddhist Dhammapada reads: “When a monk has gone into an empty place and has calmed his mind, [he] experiences a delight that transcends that of [other] men.”
With some degree of freedom from our time-driven lives also comes increased creativity. Psychologists have long known that creativity thrives on unstructured time, on play, on nondirected “divergent thinking,” on unpurposed ramblings through the mansions of life. Gustav Mahler routinely took three- or four-hour-long walks after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. Carl Jung did his most creative thinking and writing when he took time off from his frenzied practice in Zurich to go to his country house in Bollingen, Switzerland. In the middle of a writing project, Gertrude Stein would wander about the countryside looking at cows. We and our children need more time to play. In a 2007 clinical report for the American Academy of Pediatrics, the physician Kenneth R. Ginsburg wrote that “play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.” Yet “many [children] are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play.” With the forced slowing of life granted by the coronavirus, we are now seeing an explosion of creative ideas and innovations in many parts of the world. In Italy, quarantined citizens are singing from balconies. Writers have created new blogs. Parents have developed new art projects for their children.
But there is something more to be regained, something more subtle, more delicate, almost impossible even to name. That is the restoration of our inner selves. By inner self, I mean that part of me that imagines, that dreams, that explores, that is constantly questioning who I am and what is important to me. My inner self is my true freedom. My inner self roots me to me, and to the ground beneath me. The sunlight and soil that nourish my inner self are solitude and personal reflection. When I listen to my inner self, I hear the breathing of my spirit. Those breaths are so tiny and delicate, I need stillness to hear them, I need slowness to hear them. I need vast silent spaces in my mind. I need privacy. Without the breathing and the voice of my inner self, I am a prisoner of the frenzied world around me. I am a prisoner of my job, my money, the clothes in my closet. What am I? I need slowness and quiet to ponder that question.