By Alex Lorenzu: Literature Columnist
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
It is safe to say that most of the ways society has tried to cope with the limitations of lockdown have been technological. In many ways, coronavirus has accelerated technological adaptation like never before – even among those who would never have touched a group video chat before if they could help it. Covid-19 is a modern disease, after all, primed for the latest, ultra-modern solutions. And so, as society, we have texted, we have video chatted, we have reached out to old connections, we have logged long working hours from home – all the while hoping to stave off the shadow of our own loneliness rising behind us.
While keeping in touch is a vital and understandable reaction to these times for anyone who has been separated from loved ones, it only covers one part of how each person might cope with being physically and socially marooned in ways that most have never experienced before. At the end of the day, we still have to sit with ourselves. There is no opting out of this, no leave we can take from being ourselves. The socially distanced bubble has not created that confounding part of the human condition, but the grim mental health statistics from organizations such as Mind certainly underscore that mental wellbeing is no less threatened by the coronavirus than our physical health.
So are we all doomed to struggle with ourselves on top of the horror of a global pandemic until better days? What if the “cure” for the lockdown blues, if such a thing exists, hinged not only on better technology to preserve social connections, but on a better relationship with solitude itself?
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance is a classic of American literature. Although some of the wording needs to be read with a forgiving eye from an inclusion perspective today, the central message – to “trust thyself” above any circumstances – can be considered a timeless pursuit. Alongside some other classics, like Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, this essay has found an unlikely new application in the coronavirus pandemic. In today’s climate of fragmentation, where the future hangs precariously in the balance and bad news seems to continually outweigh the good, Emerson’s injunction to live in the present and to be who you are, not who you should be or have been, offers a welcome break from both the negative connotations of loneliness and the never-ending spin of the news cycle.
In parts, it almost reads as a precursor to the contemporary surge of mindfulness-based approaches to mental health. Unlike mindfulness, though, self-reliance does require some value-judging. You do have to form a judgment of the present, if only to judge yourself a complete person in your every iteration. The “you” who may feel despondent, alienated, or just plain indifferent in lockdown today does not have to compete with or invalidate any other version of you there has been before, or might come in the future.
If “society is a wave”, we might find some comfort in the metaphor that this one too shall pass.
In the dog days of lockdown, the standard recommendation has been for people to use this time to develop their skills – not only for their own benefit, but implicitly in preparation for fitting in better once the upheaval of the pandemic has settled and reconfigured everything we have taken for granted. While learning is always a good idea, upskilling alone can draw all of a person’s attention to those areas that the pandemic has pushed ever more out of our control, in particular the economy. Getting to know and respect the entirety of one’s psyche – and not just polishing the nice, marketable aspects of it – is just as much of a worthy aspiration (if not more, as Emerson himself would probably have argued). An essential skill for lockdown and beyond.
Rather than resign to feeling stuck – indoors, in a rut, in a job, without a job – we can acknowledge those feelings with mindful transience and use this period of self-reflection to understand and accept our essential non-conformity. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” It may not resolve everything at once, let alone all the material worries, but learning to live with our nature provides a foundation against turbulent times that can serve us well beyond the next crisis, or even the one after that.
When, if not now, has been a better time to reconsider “how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions”? If nothing else, the concept of a “new normal” has at its core the necessity to adapt, to change. For this change to be positive, it must come with a thoughtful reappraisal of the way we all attach meaning to society, and at least an attempt to free our minds from preconceptions that no longer serve us in a meaningful way. Perhaps the difficulties of 2020 so far make it the perfect time to revive the transcendental spirit of self-reliance.