Many years ago, a friend of mine went to a remote island off the coast of Scotland, on a medical internship serving the small, rural population. She lived in a village on the east coast and drove around the island to see patients in their homes. One day, she related, she visited an old farmer on the west coast, where he’d lived his entire life. He asked her, “Where are you staying?” She gave him the name of the village. He asked, “Do you like it there?” “Yes,” she said, “it’s very pretty.” He smiled, nodded. “So I’ve heard,” he said.
Staying put in our home environment for a whole lifetime, without venturing even a few miles away, is, for most, unthinkable. We can’t even imagine it, would see it as utterly confining, boring and unworldly, even psychologically stunting.
Yet, the early weeks and months of the pandemic forced many of us into that very mode of existence. We could not travel freely and, when we did go out, it was only for essentials at our local stores or to get exercise in the neighborhood. We stayed within a small circle of daily activity in and around our homes.
Like others, for a while I felt trapped by the restrictions. But then, as I got used to them, I began to find comfort in what they unwittingly created. Ironically, the tightening-down in my external world simultaneously opened up my internal one. I did not have to go anywhere in particular, do anything special, look for distractions or entertainment. I could immerse myself in the familiar, investigate more closely what was always nearby. I observed daily, even hourly, changes in my surroundings. I slowed down. I saw more children playing together outside. The roads were quiet, without cars; the skies were quiet, without planes. It was peaceful, I was peaceful. “Home” took on an extra, deeper, expanded meaning. It was much more than a place I lived; it was a sanctuary, physically and emotionally.
Of course, it was not to last. As we began to “open up,” I could see and hear the acceleration of activity and bustle. As we regained more of our former way of life, I had a sense of loss, not of well-being particularly, but of something spiritual. Over those weeks of confinement, despite the misery this disease was causing worldwide, I got a glimpse of what we often miss or bypass in the rush and frenzy of modern life, much as I did in the aftermath of 9/11, when the country shut down so drastically. Then, as now, I wished we did not have to go through the societal and personal traumas to give such revelations. Yet, I wondered: What if I had chosen — or been forced — to live like that Scottish farmer? Would I be better or worse for it? How would that have affected my view of the world? Would it have helped me understand, and accept, my place in it?
Has the coronavirus been telling us something I — and we — should be hearing?
Charles W. Johnson lives in East Montpelier.