What I Did During the Pandemic, Or How I Try to Make the Titanic Great Again

Ages ago when I was going to elementary school, when we came back from summer vacation, it was customary to write a short essay describing how we had spent the summer.  That was not an enjoyable or easy exercise since mostly in my old neighborhood in Chicago we did nothing…just play a little ball and sit around and think of different ways we could be mischievous.  For some reason I felt an obligation to report on what I have been doing and thinking during this very unusual period of history—perhaps also trying to be a bit mischievous!  So, let me follow this illuminating tradition and begin.

First of all, I have been practicing self-quarantine with the exception of several visits to the store for supplies.  Considering my age probably a good idea even though I don’t have the usual underlying conditions that can lead to serious consequences if the virus hits you.

Reading my old favorite Chinese poets…in translation, alas….T’ao Ch’ien, Hsieh Ling Yun, Meng Hao-Jan, Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Meng Chiao, Po Chu-I, Stonehouse, and of course my beloved Han Shan, the fool of Cold Mountain, and a few others.

Saw a lengthy, multi-part BBC video on China…Michael Wood….history, geography, culture….very good but sadly weak on the special gifts that China has.  Pathetically little on the poetry, the art, the incredible history of the hermit movement, very inadequate on the Taoist and Buddhist traditions in China, a superficial take on Confucius….but still it was interesting and informative.    I admit to a kind of infatuation with China….I know it has some very dark and unpleasant corners in its history, as do all cultures, so I am not idealizing it….but some aspects of “the mind of China” are more interesting and much deeper than anything else I have encountered…it is after all the birthplace of Zen!

Pondering “being” and “doing”…the role of solitude and silence in life and culture.  All cultures, all societies have valued both being and doing, but the emphasis placed on each can be very, very different.  Our society is very much a “doing” thing…and in a hurry…and this would be true for the whole modern West.  We not only value action to an exaggerated degree, but we have also almost completely forgotten “being”….we have lost sight that authentic action flows from who we are in the depths of our personhood.  While it is also true that what we do forms us into who we are, nevertheless at the deepest level who we understand ourselves as determines the nature of our actions.  Chaotic activity, spasmodic actions, dysfunctional lives, self-destructive attitudes, distorted relationships, downright evil, spiritual blindness and social delusion, all this and more flow from a distorted view of our being or a total ignorance of who we really are in our depths.  As one of my theology teachers once said talking about John of the Cross and detachment, “Some people are only as good as their last cup of coffee.”

All the major religious traditions have this, but unfortunately all of them also have a plethora of obfuscations that lead not only to superficiality and superstition but also to all the same distortions of human life.

Among the practices and structures that lead to a deeper sense of being are solitude and silence….the hermit life….monastic life in general.  Normally the overwhelming number of the population pays no attention to these realities, but now with so many pushed into self-quarantine and isolation and feeling cutoff from others and regular human interaction, well, solitude and silence is something that has at least brushed the lives of many…and instead of being an opportunity to discover the depth dimension of our being it simply is another challenge to find something to do…activities that fill our space….thank you, internet!

In a sense this brings up the “chicken/egg dilemma”…which comes first?  Does solitude and silence uncover the depth dimension of life, or is it that it is only when we encounter our depths that we can begin to live at home within solitude and silence….and journey ever deeper….?  The answer is of course….Both!!  

Solitude and silence can be hard…I get that.  It is never very easy unless you are exceptionally in the depths already.  But instead of running away from it we should use this opportunity to learn something from whatever bit of silence and solitude we experience.

One of the things that we can learn in solitude and silence is to what degree we are a relational being and to what degree we are a reactive being.  Sadly, too many people are mostly reactive….”as good as that last cup of coffee”….dominated by what is our latest stimulus.  If something rubs us the wrong way, the spontaneous reaction is inevitably anger and more….But with the help of solitude and silence we can paradoxically uncover the relational nature of our being and we can relate to someone else’s negativity in a positive way instead of just reacting all the time.  By the way, this is at the heart of non-violence.

On several occasions I listened to Gov. Cuomo of New York giving a daily update on the crisis in New York.  Don’t know too much about him, but he seems like a decent person and a good governor.  At one point he mentioned how New Yorkers have a reputation for being tough.  Yes, he said, we are tough, but tough should mean being smart, being resourceful, being united, being caring, loving.  Very good, Governor!  On the other hand our national leadership is just a total embarrassment (and even dangerous).  I can hope for a change in November, but that is probably just dreaming…I fear the Dems will somehow manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…..and regardless of who wins and who rules we show no sign that we are aware of what our real problems are and how deep they are.  The Ship of State is sinking.

As I write this, over 70,000 people have died in the U.S. due to the virus.  That’s more than in the whole Vietnam debacle which spanned about 7 years.  Karl Marx once wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”  Marx was referring to Napoleon I  and decades later Napoleon II.  Here this saying would apply to Lyndon Johnson and Trump.

Speaking of which, the pandemic has shocked the sensibilities of many people, especially here in the good old U.S.A….exposed some of our vulnerability.  We have a very poor sense of the “larger picture” of who we are…very vulnerable mammals who have been here a very very short time in the grand scheme of things, and civilization and our nation…hardly a blink of the eye.  We seem to forget or ignore or simply not be aware that all this can go “poof” like a soap bubble floating in a breeze.  Modern life and especially modern technology creates this illusory sense of living in this invulnerable cocoon….dominance of nature, manipulation of our environment, the hubris of “we can do anything,”….etc….all this feeds our illusions of our permanence.  All civilizations and societies eventually fall apart and crumble…both from their own internal incoherence and even more so from external, natural forces….the ruins of the Anasazi in Arizona and New Mexico show a culture wiped out probably by a vast century-long drought.  And note this recent headline about a newly released study:

Billions projected to suffer nearly unlivable heat in 2070

We live within this incredible natural environment that has its own rhythms, its own laws, its own time scale.  The mountains we love to gaze at did not spring up like a flower…they rose through unspeakably enormous forces at work that shaped and reshaped our landscape over millions of years.  And so much of our beautiful, natural landscape is due to enormous collisions with these visitors from the far reaches of the cosmos which seemed like apocalyptic catastrophes at the time.  To be sure our civilization, our society is not a permanent fixture on this planet!!

Speaking of which, I have also been pondering the “rivers and mountains” school of Chinese art, poetry and painting.  Very profound folk….for them the wilderness was an icon of the Mystery of the Tao, the mystery of their own being….  It was never a landscape to admire or a place of recreation.  There have been a few in the West who have approximated this sensibility….like John Muir who spoke of the Sierras as his “cathedral”…like Ansel Adams who tried to capture this spirit in his photographs of Yosemite…like Edward Abbey whose heartfelt passion for the desert was so evident….and a few others.

Let me conclude with a few lines from my Chinese poet friends and Edward Abbey, some words to accompany us during the Pandemic:

From T’ao Ch’ien (translated by David Hinton):

I live here in a village house without 

all that racket horses and carts stir up,

and you wonder how that could ever be.

Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself

a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums

at my east fence, I see South Mountain

far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight

returning home.  All this means something,

something absolute: whenever I start 

to explain it, I forget words altogether.

From Li Po, aka Li Bai (trans. by Hinton):

You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains:

I smile, mind of itself perfectly idle, and say nothing.

Peach blossoms drift streamwater away deep in mystery

here, another heaven and earth, nowhere people know.

From Li Po again (trans. Unknown):

“The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last cloud drains away. We sit together the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”

And from Edward Abbey:

 I choose to listen to the river for a while, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars.