The lucky ones–even in a pandemic

by Emrys Westacott

When I feel myself becoming irritable, disheartened, or just plain fed-up with life during the pandemic, I find it helpful to conduct a thought-experiment familiar to the ancient Stoics. I reflect on how much I have to be grateful for, and how things could be so much worse. That prompts the more general question: Who are the fortunate, and who are the unfortunate at this time?

Let’s consider the unfortunate first. These include:

  • the dead, the dying, the seriously ill, and those who suffer the loss of family and friends;
  • the desperate: undocumented immigrants without access to social services; refugees; migrants; and the already destitute;
  • the endangered: people with pre-existing conditions that make covid 19 especially dangerous; those residing or working in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, meatpacking factories, and other places where the contagion spreads easily;
  • the fearful: this includes millions who face serious financial insecurity as their income suddenly no longer covers their expenses: workers who have lost their jobs or been furloughed; the self-employed whose revenues have dried up; business owners who no longer have sufficient customers;
  • the domestically stressed: all those whose domestic situation is unhappy or unhealthy due to loneliness, incapacity, overcrowding, dysfunctional relationships, or just the lack of opportunities to relax, exercise, or experience a refreshing change of scene;
  • the disappointed: students in schools and colleges whose whole experience, both educational and social, has been diminished; all those on career paths whose prospects appear suddenly blighted;
  • the bored.

As for the fortunate, these include:

  • those who avoid death, serious sickness, or the loss of loved ones;
  • those who are relatively free from financial anxiety as their jobs or income from other sources are reasonably secure;
  • those who are in satisfactory domestic circumstances, living with people they get along with, or at least able to communicate regularly with family and friends;
  • those who are not bored.

It is the last category in each of these groups that I want to talk about.

I certainly feel sorry for anyone who is feeling acutely the lack of non-virtual social contact with people who are important to them. In a celebrated TED talk, neuroeconomist Paul Zac recommends that we each receive at least eight hugs a day as a simple way of inducing the good feelings that accompany the release of oxytocin in our brains. Whether or not he’s right about that, one can surely have sympathy for everyone, especially young people, who are having to endure such a long period without the usual sorts of interaction with playmates, classmates, colleagues, friends and lovers.

And I feel sorry for those who, although among the fortunate in terms of their medical, material and social situation, complain about being bored. One way of thinking about their condition is to say that they are people whose upbringing and education has failed them.

Let’s adopt a slightly different perspective. Imagine how our circumstances would appear to someone viewing us from a couple of centuries ago. From their point of view, most of us who live in modernized societies would seem to be not just fortunate but positively blessed. People who whine about being bored would sound like spoiled brats who really need to count their privileges. After all, thanks to the internet, we can, with a few slight movements of our fingers, enjoy

  • round-the-clock audio-visual communication with just about anyone, anywhere on the planet;
  • immediate access to just about any book ever written, any song ever sung, any piece of music ever composed, any film ever produced;
  • immediate access to an inexhaustible number of TV shows, radio shows, plays, poems, podcasts, newsreels, newspaper and magazine articles;
  • lessons, tutorials, even whole courses, on pretty much any subject you wish to study or any skill you’d like to acquire: foreign languages; musical instruments; mathematics; natural science; social science; history, philosophy, computing; technology; arts and crafts; yoga, meditation…….;
  • games of every kind, from traditional games like chess to complex modern creations like Minecraft, along with millions of willing opponents, collaborators, and participants.

In addition to all that, there is always the natural world to appreciate and study. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, when he was exiled to Corsica, wrote, in a famous letter of consolation to his mother:

this world, the greatest and the most beautiful of Nature’s productions, and its noblest part, a mind which can behold and admire it, are our own property, and will remain with us as long as we ourselves endure. Let us therefore briskly and cheerfully hasten with undaunted steps whithersoever circumstances call us: let us wander over whatever countries we please; no place of banishment can be found in the whole world in which man cannot find a home. I can raise my eyes from the earth to the sky in one place as well as in another; the heavenly bodies are everywhere equally near to mankind: accordingly, ……as long as I am allowed to gaze on the sun and moon, to dwell upon the other stars, to speculate upon their risings and settings, their periods, and the reasons why they move faster or slower, to see so many stars glittering throughout the night…….what does it matter upon what soil I tread?[1]

Drawing inspiration from Seneca, one could apply a similar attitude toward any other part of the natural world that comes within one’s ken: fauna, flora, rocks, streams, clouds, or fossils. The biologist David Haskell demonstrates just how rich and interesting even a tiny bit of ground can be in his book The Forest Unseen, an account of what he observed when he went each day for a year to the same square metre of forest armed only with a magnifying glass, a notebook and a pencil.[2] And unlike Seneca, we now have available to us a vast archive of scientific research plus an abundance of superbly produced popular science to help us understand any phenomena we might encounter.

So as we reflect on what lessons we can learn from the current pandemic, here is one that perhaps doesn’t get enough attention. To be the kind of person who is intensely interested in the world who throughly enjoys at least some of those things, natural and cultural, that can enrich life and yield profound intellectual or emotional satisfaction, is to be truly fortunate. To be the type who, in spite of all the opportunities mentioned above, becomes easily bored, is a misfortune.

This does not mean, of course, that if one just cultivates a sufficient spirit of curiosity one will never experience the negative effects of social isolation. Anyone is likely sometimes to grow restless, feel the need for physical closeness, and miss familiar pleasures like going out for a drink, or attending a sporting event. But given that we are able, at any time and at very little expense, to feast on the many, varied, fascinating, and spiritually nutritious facets of nature and fruits of world civilization, it is obviously preferable to be the sort of person who relishes doing this.

To steer children and students toward this kind of good fortune–that is to help them become people who are interested in, receptive to, and appreciative of nature and culture–should be a primary goal of education. We live in a time when this proposition needs to be vigorously asserted and defended. Everyone working in schools and colleges these days is aware of the pressures that push us toward thinking of education as vocational training. Fee-paying parents indebted students, and budget-conscious politicians are understandably concerned about career prospects. Hence the recent “flight from the humanities” among US undergraduates.

But with the current pandemic possibly destroying millions of jobs for good, this is the right time to start thinking hard about the prospect of a future in which there is simply less work available. The necessity of doing so many things online could well occasion a quantum leap in the socio-economic consequences of the digital revolution, particular as these affect employment. One possibility is a world in which, as before there are millions overworked and millions unemployed. But another, more rational and desirable prospect, is a world in which work is redistributed so that everyone receives both the benefits of engaging in useful work and the benefits of enjoying increased leisure, and in which everyone receive the kind of education that enables them to enjoy their leisure to the full.

[1] Seneca, “Of Consolation: to Helvia

[2] David Haskell, The Forest Unseen (Penguin, 2013).