Quarantine & Hope: Conversations in Isolation

Apr 19, 2020 | covid-19, life, perspective

In our first virtual group hang-out since COVID lockdown, a friend expressed how hopeless she felt. It was her answer to a question we asked at the end of the call: ‘Is there anything I, or we, can do to help you right now?’  With bravery, she said, ‘you can help me figure out how to feel less hopeless.’ I imagine she was voicing the experience of thousands of others across the planet.

The last two weeks have been tough. Full of anger, fear and frustration. A frustration at the masses, the undefinable public, who refused to stay home and consider the magnitude of the situation at hand. It’s easy to feel hopeless, to hear the ‘it’s just the flu’ debaters, look at Costco gathering crowds and assume we’re doomed. 

Day before the call, I’d been lost in a similar fog of hopelessness. Thankfully, the night before, a conversation had shifted my perspective. I want to share this shift, the one I shared with my friend, because it’s made a difference to my energy levels and my ability to support others. It’s also been helping lift the heaviness of stress and anxiety from my friends.

At first, I was scared to share. I was worried I’d appear to be making light of a serious and unfortunate situation. My intention isn’t to wash over the horrific impact of COVID-19; I can see the majority of us recognise the gravity of the circumstances. Instead, I believe expanding our attention to include the good we’re witnessing will bring us more peace and calm, and make us more helpful to one another. As a bonus, a relaxed nervous system is better has increased immunity. As it stands, the current fixation on the negatives of the situation to the exclusion of all else is paralysing us. Think of this frame as a brief respite from the more serious COVID outlook. A daily 10-minute tea break to allow your mind and body the chance to escape high-anxiety mode.

I find Alan Watts’ description of the Tao oddly fitting and comforting in this situation: “it isn’t that it glosses over anything but that it makes the most awful things seem [ok] without making them cease to seem terrible.” The aim here is to take a similar approach.

Quarantine is a slowing-down unlike any I’ve witnessed. For those of us fortunate enough to not be severely affected by it, it’s a time of pause. On a societal level, it’s shining a spotlight on the issues in our larger systems. Now that we are home, with time on our hands, we can see the cracks in the walls and the stains on the couch. On a personal level, the one I’m writing about here, quarantine is analogous to a psychedelic experience: it forces one to look at their lifestyle and routines and examine their usefulness. Quarantine could be a time for a deep restructuring and transformation, both personal and global.

Below is a re-written and edited transcript of the first text I sent sharing this perspective. I hope the format can keep the freshness and honesty I lost when I attempted to write the reframe as an ‘article’.

[23:01] N: I had a beautiful conversation today. I reframed the COVID-19 scenario through it and now I feel hopeful for the first time in weeks.

[23:01] B: Oh yeah?

[23:02] N: Yeah. I realised we are all witnessing, first hand, a better way of living and being with each other, both on an individual and global level. If luck is on our side, a small percentage of the change we experience now can become permanent. Global quarantine could be a learning experience.

In my mind, quarantine is analogous to a globe-wide psychedelic trip: everyone is thrust out of their normal mode of living and into a new routine. In the meantime, a magnifying glass is placed on the old habits of living. All the free time leads us to examine our routines, relationships and the components of our life. In what other circumstances could such a shift in lifestyle happen while also giving us the change in pace to introspect and inspect the ways we live? 

[23:03] B: Hmmm. I like the psychedelic analogy. I still don’t see how the situation is hopeful, though. I need more context

[23:03] N: Sure. I’ll share the 3 areas where I see and feel the most hope: increased kindness, new social norms and a shift in nature.

[23:03] N: Firstly, this is the most ‘good’ I’ve seen in years. It’s the highest amount of collective goodness I can remember. So many people are being kinder, slowing down, being generous, becoming resourceful and learning to trust one another. If we’re lucky, we keep some of these new ways of being which we’re seeing right now and the whole world becomes better for it.

[23:04] B: How are they sharing, being kinder or more trusting?

[23:04] N: It’s Ultraworking offering their service for free, Seth Godin setting up free virtual co-working rooms to provide structure or Pret a Manager offering free drinks and half-priced food to NHS workers. It’s the NHS’ volunteering service being oversubscribed in less than 2 weeks. So many people and businesses, large and small, are offering their services for free. Not because they have to but because they want to. Sure, a few may be marketing stunts but many are genuine. People are being given an opportunity to help and they are stepping up to the plate.

[23:06] B: So, mostly brands?

[23:07] N: Brands. Communities. People.

I was sick for 2 weeks. At one point, my neighbour messaged offering to do a food shop for me and a few hours later he’d left a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables outside my door. I didn’t ask. I didn’t even mention whether or not I had food. What’s heartwarming is, this isn’t a one-off situation. Across the country and globe, communities are helping each other. Neighbours are creating window sign-systems to help the elderly who need food and essentials. 

[23:08] N: It’s not only physical communities that are coming together, digital communities are flourishing. The Interintellect, a group of kind and intellectually curious thinkers, makers and academics, has banded together to create a directory of virtual get-togethers and build products to support those in need. And it all started with a collaborative channel for people working on printing 3d medical equipment. Watching the new COVID channels emerge in real-time was affirming.

[23:09] N: As for people, I’ve seen countless donations by friends, colleagues and thought-leaders. Those who have are sharing what they have. I’ve also seen grants, like those offered by Fast Grants to support scientists working on COVID-19 or GUAP’s creative freelancer fund. I could write a very long list of funds, grants and charitable actions I’ve seen in the last month. 

When people aren’t offering their money, they’re using their platform to help find jobs for those who find themselves newly unemployed. 

[23:10] B: Oh okay. Yeah, if you look from this perspective then there is good. You’re actively looking for the good in people. And there’s no shortage of it.

[23:10] N: Yep. The second area I mentioned is the development of new social norms in real time. I’ll explain what I mean. 

[23:11] N: There’s an unprecedented openness to connection. Quarantine is a shared isolation experience. Everyone is feeling similar levels of loneliness and therefore more open to friendship. I’ve seen more randomly organised Zoom calls from Twitter over the last month than ever. Getting on social media, announcing you feel lonely and want to connect is no longer a taboo. Many social norms are gone. And honestly, good riddance.

[23:12] N: People want to make friends. They want to connect. We all do. Yet our normal social culture actively discourages displays of open desire for connection and friendship. Quarantine has been a demonstration that a) it’s okay to reach out to each other and b) most people are open to friendship. There’s never been a better time to try new ways of connecting and communicating. Hopefully, we’ll collectively remember our new found knowledge post-isolation.

[23:12] B: you’re seeing that people are now more connected on social media? Do you think that counts as true connection? Does it give them what we had before?

[23:14] N: Social media as an initial connector, yeah. The conversations don’t stay on social media though. People take their conversations and connections off the platforms to more personal video calls and messaging apps.

[23:14] B: Yes, and also to your earlier point I’m spending more time gaming with my friends. And talking to the guys in France.

[23:14] N: You are! And maybe you start to realise, ‘huh, I’m enjoying making time for my friends’. Maybe you start to work less and spend even more time with them. Maybe you find yourself calling your grandparents more. And it dawns, on you and the rest of us, that perhaps this is a healthier way of living. It feels better.

[23:14] B: I can agree with a lot of this. It’s so easy to look at what’s wrong with people and with our situation.

[23:16] N: Naturally. Then we miss the communal goodness happening before our eyes. After all, quarantine is a communal effort. For it to work, the individual must agree to sacrifice socialising and hundreds of other small pleasures. It’s coming together, practised in separation. A new social experience.

[23:17] N: The final area I mentioned was the change in nature. I’ll add that I’m also fascinated by our changing relationship to nature.

[23:18] N: Firstly, the air is cleaner. As lock-down spread through the globe, satellites have detected a decrease in air pollutants. In parts of the UK, NO2 has fallen by 60% since social distancing measures have been enforced, in comparison to NO2 levels during the same period last year. 

[23:19] N: It’s difficult to put numbers on this, and in some ways it feels inappropriate, but there are estimates up to 77,000 lives have been saved in China over the last 2 months, due to a deadly form of air pollution being reduced.

[23:19] B: wow. It’s crazy how normal pollution and the price we pay for it became. I’ve noticed the cleaner air. Especially in this city. 

[23:25] N: Yeah, somehow we picked the most polluted city in Europe to live in. Do you remember we spoke about hearing the birds’ singing on our walk? We weren’t sure if our ears were tricking us, if it was always like this before but we didn’t remember.

[23:25] B: Yeah, I remember

[23:25] N: Turns out our ears weren’t tricking us. The soundscape of the city has changed. Not just London but multiple cities. For a brief moment in time, we’re getting a window into an alternate universe to see what our cities would look like if our living habits were different. If noise and air pollution weren’t the accepted price of economic growth. If there was more quiet.

[23:28] N: Also, check this. I read an interesting article about a young seismologist living in London. She was speaking about her seismometer, an apparatus for sensing movement of all sizes. Over the last month her seismometer is showing fewer and less predictable spikes. Before lock-down, seismologists could predict the peaks in the data, based on the rhythms of the day, but now as the buzz of daily public life has vanished, the spikes have become random. Her final quote is still etched in my mind, “It’s very literally reflecting a slowdown of our lives”.

[23:28] B: ohhh, I like that.

[23:32] N: I’m sure you’ve seen the social media posts, and while the dolphins (lol) in Venice’s canals aren’t real, the water in the canals is clear and calmer. There’s less motorised boat traffic on the canals and the fishes are visible for the first time in a while. And with the visible fishes come the cormorants to try their fishing luck.

[23:34] N: Away from the canals, near the bus stops, ducks have made nests. According to the venetians there are now signs warning the public to not “tread on the duck eggs”.

And maybe since the evidence is in our faces, people will finally see the ways we’ve been damaging the planet. Through this lockdown we may be able to find a balance between commerce, productivity and a slower, nature-friendly pace.

[23:34] B: that would be nice. I’ve enjoyed hearing the birds sing. I’ve enjoyed hearing less traffic and seeing less cars whenever we walk. I’d like to keep more of that. 

[23:36] N: I really hope we do keep some of it. I want even a small fraction of the positive changes to become permanent. There’s increased global awareness of the environmental impact of our daily habits. We can use this data for good. The cliche does hold true, there is a silver lining to every cloud. Do we want to see it?

[23:36] B: Maybe we can introduce two stay-at-home days a year, to give the planet a break, a chance to breathe

[23:37] N: that would be amazing

[23:39] N: Thanks for letting me type all of this out. It helps me cement the perspective. I think right now, seeing the good is healthier and more helpful than dwelling on the bad. We can divide our attention equally between the good and the bad. We don’t need to be stuck on one end of the spectrum. Quarantine can be a time for introspection, silence and creation. A home-based retreat.

[23:39] B: You’re always welcome. Thanks for sharing

[23:39] B: We’re conditioned to see everything in a negative light. So, good to break the habit.

[23:40] B: That’s something I can work on. I just have a way of thinking about human nature and to be honest, when I think about it, it makes me less happy. Can’t change everyone but we can at least focus a bit more on the good in people.

[23:42] N: yeah absolutely. we definitely can’t. Your feelings are unfounded. It’s undeniable there are lots of not great people. Also not forgetting that COVID-19 isn’t good overall.

[23:44] N: I also think we’re collectively harsh on ourselves. Our relationship to the human species seems to be an amplification of our relationship to self We’re in the middle of a crises but if you look around, there are so many incredible human beings doing everything they can to help. And for that, we have to give humanity credit.