The Virus Is a Reminder of Something Lost Long Ago

In rebuilding a broken world, we will have the chance to choose a less hurried life.

Alex Merto

Around the year 1600, the weather in much of Europe substantially cooled, in the latter phase of what has been called the Little Ice Age. In all, it lasted 300 years. Winters were brutally cold and summers were damp and chilly, greatly curtailing the growing season. Crops failed. People starved. But the change in weather forced English, French, and Dutch fishermen to build improved boats, capable of following fish farther to the west and surviving long trips through the rough seas. Undoubtedly, some of that new boat-building craft led to the ships of today.

Innovation often arises in periods of adversity. In recent weeks, we have seen such welcome invention germinating in the horrendous crisis of the coronavirus. Consider, for example, the many new platforms for online teaching, or the use of cheap Bluetooth smart thermometers able to transmit a person’s fever and geolocation to a distant database, or members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing together and apart from 29 different locations using their smartphones.

In bad times, innovation can occur in habits of mind as well as in new technologies. The frightening COVID-19 pandemic may be creating such a change now—by forcing many of us to slow down, to spend more time in personal reflection, away from the noise and heave of the world. With more quiet time, more privacy, more stillness, we have an opportunity to think about who we are, as individuals and as a society.

Habits of mind and lifestyle do not change easily. Without noticing, we slowly slip into the routines of our lives, like becoming so accustomed to living on a noisy street that we cannot remember our previous neighborhood and a time of silence. Some powerful force must strike to awaken us from our slumber. Now we have been struck. We have a chance to notice: We have been living too fast. We have sold our inner selves to the devil of speed, efficiency, money, hyper-connectivity, “progress.”

Since the Industrial Revolution, the pace of life has been driven by the speed of commerce and business. And the speed of business, in turn, has been driven by the speed of communication. In the 1830s, the fast, new communication device was the telegraph, which could relay information at about 3 bits a second. That speed rose to about 1,000 bits a second in the mid-1980s with the advent of the internet. Today, the rate is 1,000,000,000 bits a second. The resulting increase in productivity in the workplace, coupled with the time-equals-money equation, has led to our acute awareness of the commercial and goal-oriented uses of time.

As a result, we have created a frenzied lifestyle in which not a minute is to be wasted. The precious 24 hours of each day are carved up, dissected, and reduced to 10-minute units of efficiency. We become agitated and angry in the waiting room of a doctor’s office if we’ve been standing by for 10 minutes or more. We grow impatient if our laser printers don’t spit out at least five pages a minute. We cannot sit quietly in a chair for 10 minutes. And we must be connected to the grid at all times. We take our smartphones and laptops with us on vacation. We go through our email at restaurants, or our online bank accounts while walking in the park. We have become slaves to our “urgent” appointments and to-do lists and addiction to nonstop stimulation by the external world. A momentous but little discussed study by the University of Hertfordshire in collaboration with the British Council found that the walking speed of pedestrians in 34 cities around the world increased by 10 percent just in the 10-year period from 1995 to 2005. And all of this has happened invisibly. Little by little, the noise and speed of the world have increased, so that we can hardly remember an era of slowness and quiet, when we could let our minds wander and think about what they wanted to think about, when we had time to consider where we were going and what we believed in.

But now we have been struck. With many workplaces shut down, with restaurants and movie theaters and printing shops and department stores closed, now that many of us spend the 24 hours of each day sequestered in the small caves of our homes, suddenly we find ourselves alone with our thoughts. (Excluded here are such people as the heroic workers in health care and in grocery stores, and parents with young children or elderly relatives needing constant attention.) At home, time and space have opened up in our minds.

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.

Sometimes, I picture America as a person and think that, like a person, our entire nation has an inner self. If so, does our nation recognize that it has an inner self, does it nourish that inner self, listen to its breathing in order to know who America is and what it believes in and where it is going? If citizens of this nation, like me, have lost something of our own inner selves, then what of the nation as a whole? If our nation cannot listen to its inner self, how can it listen to others? If our nation cannot grant itself true inner freedom, how can it allow freedom for others? How can it bring itself into a respectful understanding and harmonious coexistence with other nations and cultures, so that we might truly contribute to peace and well-being in the world?

Like many of us, I will have the chance do that pondering for several months. But such self-reflection, such tending to the inner self, is not a onetime event. It should be an ongoing part of a life lived deliberately, to use Henry David Thoreau’s language. And that deliberate living requires an enduring change of lifestyle and habits. At some point, the coronavirus will pass, or at least recede into the haze of other viruses and ailments. There will be (and already is) staggering suffering and loss of life, enormous economic devastation. That tragedy cannot be overstated. For years, we will be trying to rebuild the broken world. But perhaps the slower lifestyle in these months can help put the pieces back together. And perhaps a more contemplative, deliberate way of living can become permanent.