When I heard that I, my roommates and everyone in six counties in the San Francisco Bay had been ordered to shelter in place for 21 days, to slow the spread of COVID-19, the prospect of the next few weeks (months? year?) felt unprecedented, but also somehow familiar. What did it remind me of, I wondered? Along with my fellow Bostonians, I experienced a domestic lockdown in the aftermath of the 2013 marathon bombing, when the governor ordered us all to hunker down while the suspects were apprehended. But that one only lasted a couple of days. After a while, I realized I was recalling a much more personal shelter-in-place order, delivered to me this same month thirty years ago.
One morning in the early part of my twelfth year, I was sitting in front of the TV watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles over a bowl of Honey Puffs, when my back seized up and one of my vertebrae cracked in two. It came as a surprise to me, but not as much of a surprise as you might think. I and my twin sister share a congenital bone disorder that causes our skeletons to fracture easily. By that point, Julia and I had already snapped thirty bones between us over the previous decade. But it was unusual, even for people with our talents, to break a bone while sitting completely stationary on a sofa. It freaked the doctors out as much as it did me, and their advice was for me to lie flat on my back for several months while we all got over it.
Mum and Dad moved my bed into the lounge, so I wouldn’t be trapped in my dark and damp bedroom at the back of the house. I was stationed near a large window with a view of a high range of gorse-covered hills. I couldn’t see the sea, but I could see its effects: clouds bouncing across the sky, rolling mists, violent sheets of rain, and gulls launching unstably onto and off the neighbor’s roof. On the other side of me was a table covered in ferns and succulents, a dusty miniature jungle. I stared into that for an hour, and then, with Mum’s help, I turned laboriously over to my other side and stared out the window. I went outside only for hydrotherapy at the local swimming pool, for what turned out to be half a year.
I was bored, of course, and scared, and disappointed. I had just started my second year of middle school, along with my first crush, on a dark-haired twelve-year-old rake named Donald. Now, suddenly, I was going to spend the foreseeable future doing math worksheets alone on my back, with only my mother for company. (I heard that teenage Donald later sold his parents’ piano for drug money while they were away on a weekend vacation—maybe dodged a bullet there.) I felt embarrassed and envious that I was the only one locked inside.
But that crucial difference between my personal lockdown and this social (national? global?) one we’re now facing has brought home to me how important it is to have others be out while you’re in. I’m feeling now, viscerally, how much those outside, those I resented back then, supported me. Not just for the practical reason that people under house arrest need external assistance to get essential care. For an emotional reason too. We insiders need to see outsiders flexing freely, hugging and high-fiving, frolicking, flourishing, moving forward. We need to see, out the window or in front of us, while we’re ill and afraid, what ordinary life looked like before this terrifying thing befell us. When I was bedridden, watching my twin coming back and forth from school and bringing friends over, or my parents going to work and making grocery runs, made it seem like leaving the bed, the room, the house, was after all no big thing. It gave me hope that I would get back out there myself, and reassurance that not everything I remembered about my previous life had been lost.
Another benefit of being on a solo shelter order, as compared to a pandemic lockdown, is that you don’t have to worry about other people at the same time as worrying about yourself. I’m very glad my twin’s and my spinal injuries were spaced out: I handled one, but I don’t know how I could have handled two at once. And I’m struggling now, as we all are, with the knowledge that literally every human I personally care about, as well as billions I don’t know, may not be able to breathe at some point in the next few weeks. Sometimes the feeling that you’re the only person under restriction is painfully isolating, sure. But right now, for both of these reasons, I’d love to be the only one. Not just for the sake of others—for the sake of me.
Unsurprisingly for a future professor, what got me through the half-year of my childhood shelter-in-place order was reading. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, The Woman in White: I raced through them and their many cousins like they were crack. I didn’t become a literature professor, though: I became a philosopher, and you might think that would be helping me right now too. Philosophers are supposed to be good in a crisis. Marcus Aurelius tells us “not to think of philosophy as your instructor, but as the sponge and egg white that relieve opthalmia—as a soothing ointment, a warm lotion.” But just how soothing is it?
Last week my chair sent an email to the department asking what reassuring words she might include in a message to our majors and minors as they fled campus. Initially I found myself focusing on “applicable skills,” the kind of justification for a humanities discipline that university administrators love. “We could say we hope the things they’ve learnt in their philosophy classes will help them in the next few weeks/months,” I wrote, “e.g. attention to what matters most, moral concern for others, a longer view of the bigger picture, etc.” But after sending my reply, part of me felt we should be giving them a bit more content than that. So I jokingly suggested a quote from Aurelius’s Meditations:
Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
I’ve always enjoyed that passage, mainly for the laughs, but afterwards it didn’t feel like a joke, or at best a sick one. The earlier parts of it kind of hit home right now, don’t they? And the last sentence seems even more painfully inadequate than usual.
Maybe to process my discomfort, I made the quote into a meme (my first!—we academics are upskilling fast this week!): that one going around lately where the captions under the images in the CDC’s thirteen-step hand-washing instructions are replaced with song lyrics. By step six, the image that looks like a wringing of hands, I’d gotten to “Soul: spinning around.” By step thirteen, I’d arrived at the clincher—“Only philosophy.” The hands in that picture are adjacent and apart, palms raised to the sky. They’re empty.
We philosophers are known for that: while people often come to us for life advice and succor, we’re also famous for being totally depressing or useless in response. There’s something bracing about that persistent strain of darkness in the philosophical tradition, that determination to face the elementary facts, that refusal to offer easy consolation. A lot of us are energized by Camus’s claim that Sisyphus “knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent … There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It’s cool to be the dark one, the one who wasn’t fooled.
It’s certainly true that the others—the optimists, the fools—can be a liability in a real crisis. They can be dangerous: think of all those criminally reckless brunchers and pre-Patty’s Day partiers this past weekend, not to mention the president’s shamelessly enabling tweets about everything being fine. They can be tiring too. The only time I’ve cried in this whole disaster so far has been when someone tried to repeatedly convince me over the phone to collude in their fantasy that it’d all be over in two weeks.
And the optimists can be irritating. I’ve always hated that rose-tinted “it’s so beautiful, we’re coming together” response to a collective catastrophe. It sounds like a simultaneous orgasm and it does feel like that, sort of. You get it at the bus stop after an earthquake, when people you’ve been riding next to for years look you in the eye for the first time and everyone says, “Well, that was rattling, wasn’t it?” You get it when everyone starts donning a “Boston Strong” cap or t-shirt after passionate, determined long-distance runners have their legs arbitrarily blown off. You get it at a citizenship ceremony, even if the main reason you’re signing up is because you’re worried the asshole-in-chief will deport you. Some people love the frisson of publicly expressed mass sentiment, but when I detect that mawkish sensation rising involuntarily in my gut, the non-joiner in me, the anti-silver-lining-er, resists. No no no, don’t try and redeem this shit! I’m saying. While another rebel part of me is begging please, please redeem this shit. What’s more depressing than an orgasm you’d prefer not to be having?
But the skeptics and pessimists need the optimists, just like the sick need the well. What happens when the whole planet falls into one category? It’s a disaster either way.
So, though the professional doomsayer in me might be thinking, as the planet slips into isolation and darkness, “Now the rest of you get it! Now you know how I live!”—like all those crowing introverts on Twitter at the moment—I’m not. Instead I’m thinking “now I get it”: I get that I need you, you appallingly able-bodied and optimistic people, you people who feel at most a light twinge in the back once a season, you people who have Life is Good® stickers on your bumpers, you people who sing from the balconies of Siena. For the love of god, the whole glowing rose-colored lot of you, remain healthy, keep singing, and stay the fuck inside—for me. For each one of the me’s that are us.
My dad is the most genuinely optimistic person I know—and he’s no fool, either. When I was in spinal lockdown as a kid, he set a goal for me, for us, that by Christmas we would have a slice of cake together at a café that had opened in the neighborhood just before I broke my back. It was called Ford’s Fancy Foods, and was probably not that fancy, but for me it had become a symbol of everything I was missing out on. We did it—not quite before Christmas, but not long after. I recovered, Ford’s Fancy Foods was still in operation, the staff hadn’t been laid off in a global recession, customers weren’t holed up in their houses due to a senseless viral outbreak caused by a pangolin with the sniffles, and my father—my now 72-year-old father, robust and cheerful, but with hypertension, pre-diabetes and a persistent wheeze from years of smoking—was there to drive me down and buy me my cake. I was too cool a week ago to end this piece with an analogy between that happy ending and what I’m hoping for all of us by the end of this year. But I’m not too cool, not today anyway, to do it now.
This essay is part of our new project, Quarantine Journal: Notes from Inside. Read more entries here.