In early 1665, Isaac Newton was a twenty-three-year-old student at Cambridge University, on the verge of taking his exams to be a scholar in mathematics, when suddenly the plague broke out in London. The deaths were horrific and multiplied by the day; many Londoners fled to the countryside where they spread the plague far and wide. By that summer, Cambridge was forced to close, and its students dispersed in all directions for their safety.
For these students, nothing could have been worse. They were forced to live in scattered villages and experienced intense fear and isolation for the next twenty months, as the plague raged throughout England. Their active minds had nothing to seize upon and many went mad with boredom. For Newton, however, the plague months represented something entirely different. He returned to his mother’s home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. At Cambridge he had been bothered by a series of mathematical problems that tortured not only him but his professors as well. He decided he would spend the time in Woolsthorpe working over such problems. He had carried with him a large number of books on mathematics that he had accumulated, and he proceeded to study them in intense detail. He went over the same problems, day after day, filling notebooks with endless calculations.
When the sky was clear he would wander outside and continue these musings, seated in the apple orchards surrounding the house. He would look up at an apple dangling on a branch, the same size to his eye as the moon above, and he would ponder the relationship between the two—what held the one on the tree and the other within the earth’s orbit—leading him to ideas about gravity. Staring at the sun and its optical effect on everything around him, he began to conduct his own experiments on the movement and properties of light itself. His mind flowed naturally from problems of geometry to how it all related to motion and mechanics.
Robert Greene and 50 Cent – “The 50th Law”
The deeper he went into these studies, the more he would see connections and have sudden insights. He solved problem after problem, his enthusiasm and momentum quickening as he realized the powers he was unleashing in himself. While the others were paralyzed with fear and boredom, he passed the entire twenty months without a thought of the plague or any worries for the future. And in that time, he essentially created modern mathematics, mechanics, and optics. It is generally considered the most prolific, concentrated period of scientific thinking in the history of mankind. Of course, Isaac Newton possessed a rare mind, but at Cambridge nobody had suspected him of such mental powers. It took this period of forced isolation and repetitive labor to transform him into a genius.
Nobody would have chosen for this to happen. What makes our plight even more precarious, though, is that we don’t yet really know what “this” is.
We don’t yet know how many people will become infected. We don’t yet know how many lives will be lost. We don’t yet know how much disruption there will be, nor how this will affect the smooth running of the economy, nor how long the damage will take to recover from, nor how all of this uncertainty will prey upon the mental health of the global population.
But whilst nobody would have chosen for this to happen, we must face facts: it has happened, it is happening, and it will continue to happen. So the question that remains is “What are you going to do?” Not about coronavirus – that is outside your control. I mean what are you going to do about you? How are you going to proceed?
Will you glue to yourself to BBC News and tell yourself you’re ‘being a responsible citizen’ by ‘staying informed’? Will you scroll through your Facebook feed hours at a time, waiting for all this to blow over? Will you give yourself permission to wallow in anxiety over the state of the world?
Or will you give your house an early spring clean? Will you learn how to break-dance in your living room by watching Youtube videos? Will you finally write that James Bond/Planet of the Apes crossover screenplay?
MAKE THIS TIME COUNT
I supposed what I’m asking is are you going to waste this time, or are you going to use this time?
There’s a good chance that by now you are self-isolating. You may be doing this out of choice, or you may be doing this because you have been told that you must. Either way, I want you to accept with every fibre of your being that for an unknowable period of time, this is your life. That there is no advantage to be gained by resisting it.
But most importantly, that it is entirely within your control whether or not your life during this period of time is good or bad. Entirely within your control.
Why? Because it is in fact just as easy to look for and find what is good about this situation as it is to look for and find what is bad about it. Both are just a simple decision away, and you are free to choose whichever one you like.
Now, before you start to, please don’t try to justify choosing only to see what is terrible about this with the excuse that… that’s what everybody else is doing. You were given a free will for a reason. Worse, please don’t try and claim that it would be disrespectful to all of the people suffering for you to try and make something good of it. No! Don’t give me that shit.The people who are suffering have not asked you to suffer along with them.
You can be compassionate without being unnecessarily negative. I am not asking you to pretend that something that is bad is good. I am not asking you to deny anything that is true. I am simply asking you to look for the parts that are good.
People dying? Bad. Obviously. But does that then therefore mean that everything about the entire situation is also bad, by default? Not by a long shot.
If you are self-isolating, what is the one thing you suddenly have? An unknowably long stretch of relatively free time. Sudden, unexpected free time. I’ll say it again: you might not have chosen for it, but now that you’ve got it, make the most of it.
And what about the people who are not going to be able to work, and who are therefore going to struggle to make ends meet, even more than they normally do? What good can they find in this situation?
Well, I don’t have to wonder too hard about those people – I am one of them.
I make my living by teaching people guitar and piano – some come to me, some let me come to them. I stop working, I stop earning. Now, I could shit myself about this and decide already that this is a personal tragedy for me, full stop, and there’s nothing I can do. But why? Who can that possibly help? I have to find another way to look at it, something more empowering.
When I quit my teaching job last summer to go it alone, one of the ideas I was excited about was teaching people remotely, via Skype. There were a lot of reasons – I could work from home, cutting down on travel time; I would not be limited to the tiny portion of the world’s population that live near me; and if there was some reason why I couldn’t leave the house for a while, I’d be able to continue making a living.
But I didn’t really ever get moving on it – a mix of not knowing where to get started, as well as trying first to get some local in-person students. And eventually I all but forgot that it was ever my plan to be a remote music teacher.
Well, now that has gone from “nice idea I never really got round to” to “If I don’t do it, how the hell am I going to pay the rent?!”
And so I have decided that I am going to see this as a kick up the arse from reality. Am I really so arrogant and self-absorbed that I think reality sent the coronavirus just to get me to move forward in my business? Of course not! That would be really mad. But I recognise that I have the power to choose what this situation means to me. So am I going to look for what is bad about it or what is good about it?
And that’s my point here, really. You get to decide what this pandemic means – not for the world, but for you. Will you give it a meaning that inspires you to spend this time well, or will you give it a meaning that disempowers you and finds you wallowing in anxiety?
One more thing. I don’t ask for much, but promise me one thing: That your life doesn’t become a Groundhog Day existence where you sit on the sofa in front of the news all day long.
Aside from the essential updates and important advice from the government, nothing else you see on there will be something you can do anything about. I’m not saying don’t watch the news, but be reasonable. Limit yourself. All you need are the relevant facts. It takes a matter of minutes to get them on your phone. Once or twice a day is more than enough.
All that writer’s block I somehow filled a whole post with the other day seems to have evaporated, no? Anyway, I hope you have a lovely Sunday. I have a feeling my writing in the near-future is going to be in this vein – sharing my insights on how to deal with the uncertainty the coronavirus situation has suddenly thrust upon us all.
If you would prefer instead that I be morose about it, and focus only on what is tragic about it, and how powerless we all are, and you are think I’m being irresponsible for even floating the idea that you can try to turn shit into sugar and make something good come from it…
Then stop reading. Unsubscribe. I love you, but I don’t want you.
Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 4: 49a