For millions of people, the pandemic has been a journey, perhaps a training, in learning. In Hamlet's words: “to be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space.” Enforced stillness can drive one mad staring at cracks in the wall, or it can enable you to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study the patterns. In ways large and small, from discovering new purpose to immersion in a new hobby, isolation and anxiety have led people to hidden aquifers of fulfilment that in normal times may have lain forever undiscovered.
Shrinking our boundaries has impelled us to expand our comfort zone. First by reaching inward to think about what matters in our lives, what brings true satisfaction. Then by reaching outward to embrace the one inviolable freedom each of us possesses: the freedom to explore infinitudes of time and space within the nutshell of our skull. And thus even transcend the radical solipsism of life through compassion and unity with the other and the universe.
Can we come to see this as a way of life – a fundamental mindset redesign – and not merely a survival tactic for a Black Swan crisis? From productivity to creativity and overall wellbeing, the practice of finding richness – and possibility – within the stillness of morning may yield its true rewards when we are back in the maelstrom of “normal” life.
Examples abound of people reframing Covid confinement as the opening, rather than closing, of a door to the future. In my own circle, there's the global technology editor who in stillness heard the inner voice of her mission – drawing cartoons. Across Japan, “salaryman” dads have spent a fulfilling year getting to know their kids, tossing a baseball back-and-forth in the garden on a Thursday afternoon (while getting more done at home than they could dream of in the office, the old locus of existence). Through enforced reprieve from the dinner-party circuit, a writer friend finished reading Proust after decades trying and discovered not only better company but kinship in the virtues of isolation. Such experiences point to the possibility of seeing the pandemic year as a springboard to a better way of living.
Yet, a crisis rooted largely in common experience must also be characterised by a near infinite diversity of individual realities. Life-enriching experiences, while more widespread than perhaps thought, have not been universal, nor equally accessible to all. To an inner-city New York college student cramming for exams during lockdown, with siblings yelling in a two-room flat, the exhortation to contemplate a garden might sound like a sick joke. For the millions who have lost loved ones, the natural course of grieving has been complicated by the loneliness of isolation compounding the loneliness of loss – unable to mourn together or even say goodbye. Meanwhile, even as millions of workers have been liberated by teleworking, countless others have found themselves imprisoned by technology that turns boss into Big Brother, and life into a succession of Zoom calls.
Even without personal setbacks, many identify an epidemic of pandemic limbo. Adam Grant is an organisational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Writing in the New York Times, he identifies “languishing” (the grey blah zone between fulfilment and depression) as the dominant emotion of the pandemic year. The claim is debatable. But each of us surely has at some point encountered the spectre of listlessness and emotional depletion in isolation.
It's why simple routines, such as dressing for work even at home, and online games such as Words with Friends, have become useful tools for maintaining sanity. And why weekly TV dramas such as Line of Duty in the United Kingdom (which drew 56.2 percent of the country's television audience to the last episode) transcend mere distraction to become rituals of societal bonding. Under the high priest of Deliveroo, they spread the manna of shared communal experience – for which we all yearn – to overcome the Sunday night blues, before heading back into Zoom hell.
Perhaps it's because not in spite of these factors that there might be opportunity, even responsibility, to seek deeper positive value moving forward, rather than look back in uniform tones of langueur-grey. Each moment in life, however terrible, expresses a full palette of experience, to be examined attentively, yielding purpose in the now and hope in tomorrow.
Quest for meaning
Think of Japanese artist Taro Okamoto's towering mural depicting the Hiroshima atomic bombing. It slashes with lurid, clashing, angry colour – blood red, desert ochre, ghoulish green – an image of sheer destruction. Yet the Myth of Tomorrow stands as a powerful testament to the human spirit. A message of hope. And Okamoto's wish, for himself, his people and the world.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl proposed a quest for meaning as our primary motivational force, one that can bring hope, even joy and beauty, in the darkest conditions. Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning in nine days after surviving Nazi concentration camps, chronicling his experience and how it inspired a therapeutic approach called logotherapy that puts the mind, not outside forces, in charge of existence.
“Life holds a potential for meaning under any conditions,” he wrote, “even the most miserable ones.” Solidarity, often expressed in a grim sense of humour, is fundamental to the way forward. In the terror of transport from Auschwitz to a new camp, Frankl writes, the stirrings of inner life enabled prisoners, catching glimpses of the Alps above Salzburg at sunset, “(to experience) the beauty of art and nature as never before”.
It is interesting to note that Frankl attributed the popularity of his book not to its inspiring account of meaning in extreme circumstances, but to the “mass neurosis of modern times”. Moreover, he wrote in 1946, in terms that resonate today, about “progressive automation” contributing to “an existential vacuum (that) manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom”.
The need for renewal
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant and author of Shorter and The Distraction Addiction, writes cogently about strategies to overcome existential vacuum by reconstructing structures in the rhythm of daily life (including ample time for rest and contemplation) – which risk being obliterated by digital overload. Even before the pandemic, he tells me, “there was plenty of evidence that we were facing a kind of a crisis of meaning”.
Pang makes a powerful point about Frankl's thought and its relevance to Covid life: “Meaning isn't something that you discover once, like buried treasure or the Holy Grail; it's something you constantly invent,” he says. “Further, your ability to find meaning in the face of insurmountable obstacles or terminal challenges is strengthened by your ability to find meaning in small everyday things, and in relationships.”
What, then, is the secret to this ability to continuously renew meaning, whatever the circumstances? Perhaps some answers lie in the concept of “flow” – a theory of happiness developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Happiness is a state of mind
What do wool weavers in the Italian town of Biella, rock climbers clinging to the sheer face of Yosemite's El Capitan, breadmakers deep in the Sahara desert and biotech engineers working around the clock to develop Covid vaccines have in common?
They are masters of a state of “optimal experience” called flow that Csikszentmihalyi proposes as the key to achieving fulfilment whatever fate holds in store. Flow is the state of such elevated attention that time dissolves and the self seems to merge with life's order and energy, so that one can forget even the grimness of a decrepit body or a prison cell. It is a sense of command and control that enables the F1 driver to say he not only feels but is safer hurtling around a circuit at 250kph than crossing the street in New York City.
For Csikszentmihalyi, who had his own experiences of wartime tragedy, losing one brother to combat and another to the Soviet gulag, flow depends upon a mental attitude – and training – that is a quest for purpose and often associated with a common goal higher than the self.
“Happiness is not something that happens… It does not depend on outside events,” he writes. “Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives.”
Csikszentmihalyi's Western goal-oriented vision converges, perhaps as Yin to Yang, with Eastern Zen approaches that dispense with goals. Shunryu Suzuki, the monk who established the first Zen monastery outside Asia, liked to say: “Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind.”
Harnessing the power of serendipity
Dr Christian Busch, director of New York University's Global Economy programme at its Center for Global Affairs (whom we met in Weird Curves & Exciting Results, World 2019, Issue 2), flips the discourse in his book The Serendipity Mindset. He embraces unexpected outside events and their power to shape lives, yet – like Csikszentmihalyi and Frankl – believes that it is our response to them that counts.
His key insight is a focus on a mindset of serendipity. We can choose to take specific actions that increase our probability of lucky things happening, he says. And when terrible things happen we can reframe them into something positive.
“Serendipity is about making accidents meaningful,” says Busch. “It's about seeing something that goes wrong, then imbuing some kind of meaning in it, and figuring out how can I now reframe this into something that works?”
Busch opens The Serendipity Mindset with an account of a near-death experience he had while still in high school, in which a daredevil drive ended with his car demolished after smashing into a line of parked vehicles. The event led him on a journey that took him from the bottom of his class in Heidelberg, Germany, to a PhD and teaching position at the London School of Economics.
Bad timing – or an opportunity
After years working on his book, Busch found himself launching it in the middle of the pandemic. Serendipitous outlets, such as airport bookstores, were suddenly closed. Strategies for cultivating luck in the urban agora were shut off.
Then Busch himself came down with Covid. It was a severe form that left him alone in his apartment “with 911 on my speed-dial”.
But as he recovered, he also worked to reframe Covid's impact on his book and felt a renewed sense of personal belief in the power of serendipity. The experience inspired him to re-evaluate his life once again.
“We don't have to see uncertainty as a threat, it can also actually become an ally,” says Busch. “And the biggest shift I hope we're seeing is how we can essentially turn the unexpected into an ally. That way we can take away a lot of the anxiety, and see instead potentiality. That's what serendipity is all about.”
Thanks to a brush with death, Busch reconnected with an old friend with whom he hadn't spoken for more than a decade.
Something clicked. Perhaps serendipitously.
Now a baby's on the way.
JOJI SAKURAI BIOGRAPHY
Joji Sakurai is a former Associated Press foreign correspondent and features editor. His writing has been published in the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, New York Times and other publications. He now focuses on developments in AI and the Internet of Things from his base in Japan.