“All of humanity’s problems,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
He was probably not thinking of coronavirus when he wrote it, but it seems a useful observation in the current crisis, and one that Boris Johnson might find helpful as a variation on “Stay alert. Stay at home unless you go out. Wear a mask”, which lacks something in depth and subtlety.
I’m sure it would help if more of us could sit quietly in a room alone and not rush off to the nearest beach in a panic because the package planes are grounded. Now that there are so many more things you can do in a room on your own – television, radio, video games, recorded music – it’s bit surprising that the urge to get out is so strong.
I have always been attracted by Corey Ford’s dictum, “I’d go away if it wasn’t so far.” Perhaps we could adopt is as a kind of subliminal slogan popping up between programmes.
But there are many comments from the past that could be adapted to current circumstances. For instance, if you’re feeling the urge to travel unnecessarily, you might be influenced by this philosophy, which I believe came from the Peanuts comic strip, one of the world’s great sources of wisdom: “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. It might not be necessary.”
I wonder what motto is hanging on the wall of those who make decisions about our behaviour in Covid times. I feel folk singer Tom Paxton’s comment many years ago would be appropriate: “If I’m absolutely sure of anything, I probably forgot what it was.”
Or maybe this from Mark Twain: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”
Super-scientist Albert Einstein felt that when explaining complex problems you should “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. In the years since he said it, almost everyone in authority has routinely forgotten the vital last three words, and this has continued during the critical last six months, resulting in such conflicting idiotic instructions as “Go to pubs and restaurants, but not church, because that’s obviously much more dangerous, especially if you sing.”
But how do we – the locked in, masked and socially distanced – feel about the way the world is going? Poet Philip Larkin comes into his own with “Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives”
Or maybe another poet, Stevie Smith:
“I was much too far out all my life.
And not waving but drowning.”
The effect on us all is really one of disorientation. Before March this year we were comfortable, in the sense that we sort of understood the world and how it worked. We may or may not have liked it, but the familiarity of it made it bearable at worst and wonderful at best. The bits in between were understandable.
But all that was just a delusion. Most of us didn’t really know what was going on – and as Donald Rumsfeld would say, we didn’t know that we didn’t know. Now we do.
Life, we now see, is unpredictable, and that must affect the way we approach it. Two vastly different writers saw this clearly. First, the singer Leonard Cohen, who described someone as “starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true”.
And the writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge: “Some see that life’s a mystery. Others think it can be grasped.”
As we step wonderingly into the second half of 2020, the others must surely be shrinking in number.