How to Escape a Pandemic
"Socrates was told that some man had not been improved by travel. 'I am sure he was not,' he said. 'He went with himself."
– Michel de Montaigne ("On Solitude") (1)
I flew 32 times last year... to San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Boston. For a few months there I actually cared about my airline status, the gold emblem I earned after eating too many packets of airplane mini-pretzels and contributing several tons in CO2 emissions.
This year's been a little different... I've flown 0 times. My feet have almost exclusively remained planted in Pennsylvania soil.
For those of us who love to travel, it's been a challenging year during this pandemic. We've had to remain rather inert and isolated. Perhaps some of us feel we've been in a little rut, working from the same room or hanging out with the same small group of people for the last 9 months. Traveling typically provides us with the much-needed escape from our routine and comfort zone, and conveniently it only requires a round trip ticket and a hotel room.
As easy and fun traveling may be, I don't think it's the only way we can cultivate a new perspective and escape our current circumstances. In fact, I'll go a bit further: at best, traveling typically provides only temporary reprieve from our routine. Traveling is a bit like a pleasant dream, pulling us away from reality only to plunge us right back in as soon as it's over – when we start checking our emails again. As the poet Horace said, "it is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.”
We can give up traveling during this pandemic with the knowledge that a more permanent change in our circumstances is not earned from seeing distant places or eating different foods, but from focusing inward and understanding and improving our values, our skills, our attitude. After all, these are the assets we carry with ourselves, as Socrates said, no matter where we go. And understanding and improving these assets can be achieved under any condition, even the most stringent lockdown regulations.
Look at Malcolm Little. Entering prison to serve an 8-10 year sentence at the age of 20 in 1946, he had a bleak future ahead. He was a poorly educated black man from Nebraska with hardly any family. But he decided to leverage the time locked-away to focus entirely on building the educational foundation he never had. First he copied the entire dictionary by hand, line by line. His vocabulary strengthened, he then devoured every book the prison library had in philosophy, history, literature, and science. He explored his faith, converted to Islam, and when he was paroled in 1952, decided his transformation should be accompanied with a new name: Malcolm X. He had built himself into a radical human rights activist over those 6 years – all while confined to a single cell.
When we're restricted to the same environment, we can no longer explore the world around us, but we can still turn inward and explore the assets we hold within. We can ask ourselves: what exactly are we passionate about? Who do we like to spend time with? What are we good at, and could we get even better? Then, we can take the appropriate action to improve those assets each day, day-in and day-out, regardless of our physical location.
This doesn't have to be an extremely philosophical or abstract exercise. You and I aren't monks here, searching for enlightenment by sitting under a tree and pondering reality. At some point we need to take action. We go out to the driving range each morning to improve our swing. We spend each night learning a new chord on the guitar. We study 8 hours each weekend for a professional certification that will greatly advance our career. It's a little bit of rewarding progress each week, making this whole pandemic that much more bearable.
The deeper we go in these activities like these, the more frequently we can experience a state of mind the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow". (2) We become so deeply focused in what we're doing, harnessing our creative powers or challenging our body physically, that we slowly forget about the world around us. A few hours of time slips away in an instant. Our normal anxieties and worries disappear; there is no mulling over some credit card fee or an upcoming promotion.
We can escape from the world without traveling a single step.
It's possible to have engaging, perspective-changing experiences while we're not glancing up at the Sistine Chapel or hiking to the top of Machu Pichu. It just requires some self-reflection followed by disciplined, consistent action.
The writer Robert Greene has said there are two types of time: dead and alive time. One is when you hang around, waiting for things to change on their own. Dead time.
The other is when you decide to take the wheel and maximize the limited time you're given to make things change. You spend each and every day investing in yourself, learning new skills or building new relationships, regardless of whether you're in a prison cell or a home office. You make every second count.
A second lockdown is only just beginning. And what do all of us have? Time.
We can count down the days until a vaccine is ready. We can complain - about how confined we are, how we can't travel, how little there is left to watch on TV. Or we can use this time as productively as possible, as alive time. We can turn inwards, develop an improved perspective, learn something new, and grow deeper connections to our home soil.
How we spend that time is ultimately up to us.
(1) "On Solitude" (from Essays) by Michel de Montaigne
(2) Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)