As social animals, people generally don’t respond well to confinement. That’s why it’s our primary form of punishment. It’s really the best disincentive to bad behavior we’ve come up with as a species. Lashings, public humiliation, attending traffic school, nothing makes people think twice more than the threat of being locked up. Which is why it’s understandable for people to be freaking out over current stay-at-home orders. It feels a lot like prison.
Personally, this is my briar patch.
To be confined is to be kept within limits, but it’s totally up to us to choose how we relate to these limits. As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.” We are never more unfree than when we are trapped in our narrative of obligation, the dreary world of “I have to”. Now with many of our obligations gone, we have nowhere more to be than with ourselves, and for many, that is a scary prospect.
If only life would slow down, we say, we’d be free to pursue the things we truly enjoy. A little peace and quiet would be nice. Now that time has arrived, and all this quiet is well, disquieting. We realize that being busy has let us off the hook for daring to examine what really matters. Because we’re secretly afraid that when we look deeply, we’ll either feel we’ve wasted our time in pursuit of those things that don’t matter, or we’ll realize that the things that do matter are too far out of reach. Confronting these questions about who we are is something so abhorrent to most people, we would rather do almost anything else than just be with ourselves.
So we look for excuses to keep busy and blame a new set of external circumstances for denying us what we deserve. I suspect the people who complain the loudest are the ones most afraid, because it avoids the risk of making new choices and being accountable for them. It’s much easier to look at a wide open highway and proclaim that it doesn’t go where we want and even if it did, there are too many unknowns. It’s the fear of freedom that keeps people truly confined.
While loss of income can be devastating, pulling out the rug of identity that comes from our work is equally if not more frightening. What we do keeps us continuously looking elsewhere for validation, recognition, and connection rather than from within. Yet it’s when we are deprived of resources that we become truly resourceful. We’re forced to look at things in new ways and realize we had the heart and brains and courage all along.
To be confined is liberating.
You may think as someone who writes about freedom that I’ve painted myself into a literal corner here, but hear me out. It’s a rare gift to have time with family, as well as the quietude to reflect and dream. Personally, we’ve lost all our income for the time being, but I can think of far worse things. We have food on the table, laughter in the house and an ease of togetherness that wasn’t there before. The freedom of confinement lies in the re-framing of “I have to be home with my family” to “I get to be home with my family”. Of course, my family may not feel the same way, but I’m enjoying the hell out of this.
As someone who has always loved playing outdoors, this situation has caused me to temporarily shift priorities. But it is just temporary. There will be time for village walks, exploring goat trails and falling off my mountain bike in spectacular fashion. This is not a life sentence after all. I see this time as a gift – a rare opportunity to engage in unhurried reexamination without deadlines or expectation. It’s the opposite of punishment.
Being on the clock is punishment, but one for which we are paid. This makes up somewhat for the perceived sacrifice of not being free to do what we want. With no pressing obligations, we’re suddenly open to set our own agendas instead of having them set for us. This can be scary, as we have no one else to blame if things don’t work out. If only we didn’t have to drive hours to our jobs, work overtime, pick up the kids from school and take them to soccer practice and do the shopping and attend teacher parent meetings. Well, now we don’t. Life has skidded to a halt and reveals itself to us in all of its beautiful stillness. The reasons we give ourselves for why we cannot achieve or feel or express what we want, are laid bare in these moments of splendid quietude.
I’ve had so many deeply invested plans and projects stymied one after another by this virus I’ve lost count. Oh, you poor thing, I can hear some of you say. Think of the lives lost, the homeless, and the heartbreak of lonely toll booth collectors. That’s real tragedy for you. I do realize the magnitude of it all and can’t forget for one minute how lucky we are.
Being grateful is key to the resourcefulness that leads us out of such a crisis. Despite all the #blessed people on Instagram wanting us to know just how well they’re doing, being thankful helps us out of the negative feedback loop it’s so easy to create when things go sideways. We’re hardwired for loss-aversion, fear and what’s wrong, so creating space for what’s right allows in light, to help us see what might be possible. As things fell apart, I began creating daily ‘wins’ out of simple routines. Make the bed? Win. Make a perfect cup of coffee? Win. Hugs and kisses? Win. I can never be tired of all this winning.
I’m also finding communication to be richer and deeper than it ever was, maybe because the days are quieter. It’s helped me rediscover and appreciate the art of unhurried conversation. It’s like my eyes adjusting to the darkness.
On those long, grinding commutes, what are the things we tell ourselves we want to do before we die? Write that novel? Learn to ride a unicycle? Take a selfie with the Pope? The confining moment determines much of how the rest of our life will go. It’s a snapshot of everything up until now and reveals what’s possible when we embrace the freedom to make new choices. The beauty of it is, we don’t have to do anything. Confinement is our mind’s secret workshop, with just enough space to dream.
The proper response to life is applause. — William Carlos Williams