Carpe diem! Seize the day! One of the oddest facts about crises – even personal crises – is that events require striking an indelicate, uncomfortable, often frustrating balance between extremes, doing and waiting, managing small things awaiting big ones, balancing spikes of fear with long stretches of boredom. Some heartening news: It has been done before and is good for the soul.
As you sit where you are, you imagine – in some sense – that only you know what you are going through, waiting-out this crumby coronavirus. On the other hand, intellectually – even with fewer social meetings – you know we are all going through this together.
Of course, all this is happening in the ‘now. If you picture all the world and other Americans minimizing personal contact, getting bored, wishing freedom, wanting visits, and craving more chances to laugh, linger, wander, gather, work, play and pray together, you are about right.
In a sense, this is a flat phenomenon, everyone at one time experiencing similar frustrations – punctuated by grave concerns, triggering worries about things we would rather forget.
But if you pause to ponder history, this is not new. If you look back – at even one person’s history, much less our nation’s or the world’s – there is something curious: Periods requiring a balance of fear and boredom are common.
Put differently, if you tip that flat phenomenon upright, you will see over time that most of us have experienced something similar before – as individuals, as a nation, and even as one world.
What do you mean? – you may ask. Well here it is. Lest we forget, we have been forced to wait before with great uncertainty. We tend to forget uncertainty after clouds lift, events subside or conclude, and time puts a long-awaited punctuation point on our waiting.
On the positive side, most have awaited – and managed stress through – an application, wedding, birth, graduation, home sale or purchase, training, work transition, or another hoped-for event.
On the flip side, most have wrestled less happy times, filled with worry and empty hours, recovering from an unexpected operation, injury, or accident, processing disappointment, sadness, a faltering relationship, prolonged sickness, or slow loss of a close relative.
If you think about it, we have all been here before. We have plowed empty hours, until snowbanks are piled high with boredom. We have hunted purpose in times of disorientation. We have worried until worrying itself becomes boring. We have prayed, lost sleep, awoken.
In this case, however, the endgame is good. As individuals, communities, nations, and the world, we will stabilize having gone through this together. Bonds will tighten, relief be shared. Losses – mobility, social interaction, finances and health – will be for almost all temporary and mild.
History proves our moment is not new, not really. If the “novel” virus is creating novel responses, a basic need to modulate fear and boredom is hardly novel. History offers a navigable path through this unfamiliar territory, which to some may feel unprecedented.
Historically, wars have this character. Action-packed movies notwithstanding, combat is as boring as scary. The New York Times “History of the European War” (1915) offers a pithy definition of war, quoting an anonymous soldier: “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.” A fighter pilot says: “Hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of terror.”
Wishing worry away is common. One soldier in the Great War, quoted by Edward Osborn, observed: “This is a blooming fine game, played slow.” Sentries, on guard as we are, define their job as “organized boredom.” And so it goes, discomfiting but not new.
Taken as a whole, we are not today at much risk if we follow national, state and local guidance.
We are at far less risk than those before us – who faced wars and insoluble health scares, polio and tuberculosis to pre-antibiotic infection. That is not our world. We live in a time of modern medicine, communication and computation. We also live in the most capable nation on Earth.
That means fear can be modulated, spikes growing lower. Social separation works, recoveries will start to proliferate, infections fall off, and this nasty little virus run its course.
America is the vanguard of science, production, medicine and private sector genius. We are also being well-led.
The real challenge may be simpler, what do while waiting. Here again, history is helpful. On a personal level, soldiers used down time writing and reading, playing cards, thinking about the future, performing duties for which later obligations would leave little time.
Yes, they ate and smoked cigarettes more, but many also devoted more time to physical exercise – working to be stronger for future fights, as well as to prayer – getting stronger in other ways.
They commiserated with their fellow soldiers, got to know each other better, shared opinions and jokes, sang songs, kept each other’s spirits up corroborating complaints, poking fun, planning and remembering. They watched perimeters, also movies. They wrote letters, even parodies – no email. They made each day livable, found excuses to laugh – even at predicaments.
In short, downtime became uptime, which paid dividends twice – minimizing current boredom and maximizing returns when the boredom passed. Even civilian predecessors knew how to dispel boredom. They remembered forgotten arts, comforted with imagination and creation, as well as good stories, good meals, and good humor.
They put their minds to making, baking and managing what they could, solving puzzles – crossword, jigsaw and life’s bigger conundrums. They helped family members think ahead. They treasured each day. Seldom are we given the luxury of slowing down. We have it now, for a short while. So, dig through that old trunk for new peace. Remember there are blessings lurking where one least expects to find them. Carpe diem! Seize the day!