The days after 9/11 were eerily quiet. There were no airplanes in the skies; they had been grounded. People were still in shock and waiting to see if another deadly attack would come. It didn’t, thank God, but the nation slowed down dramatically that week. And then we adapted and went back to living, albeit aware of a newly aggressive enemy.
But now much of the nation is under official or semi-official lockdown. Schools have sent students home for the year in many places. Professional and college sports have stopped. Concerts are canceled. The stock market is down more than 30 percent from it’s recent high. Even churches—the very place where people seek solace in times of crisis—have temporarily closed their doors, too.
And now all nonessential businesses are closed by government order in California, Illinois, New York, and a growing list of other states. Rumors are rife that the federal government will invoke the Stafford Act and declare effective martial law. I have no idea if that’s true, but it’s a rumor that is making the rounds so widely that you’ve probably already heard it.
Strange rumors and semi-plausible scenarios are what you get in uncertain times when people fear for their lives and their futures.
But what happens when everything stops?
Of course, not everything has stopped. The electricity is on. Water still comes out of your faucet. You can buy groceries, though there are spot shortages of key items. But it’s all of those nonessentials that make life sweet, right? So what now?
We are grappling with this question so I thought I’d offer some thoughts.
My first suggestion is to recalibrate. Maybe it’s not the nonessentials that really make life sweet. Certainly a meal out with friends is fun, hearing a concert can bring real joy, and the gym is a welcome refuge from the rest of your life.
In fact, I’m prepared to argue that it’s the essentials that really matter and that sometimes the nonessentials crowd out that which is most important and most enjoyable.
As I’ve been thinking about what to do during our lockdown, I keep coming back to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I think about the book a lot, but lately more than ever. I’m struck lately by the vigorous family social life in the homes at night. Yes, there are balls, which are definitely out for us right now. But every night the families gather for dinner, they talk, and then afterward people head to the parlor to read, play games, or play music. There’s even a scene in which Jane Bennett, the eldest sister, falls ill and is quarantined at Netherfield, the home of her future husband, Mr. Bingley.
The point is they built deeper relationships with each other because they spent time doing things together and enjoying each other’s company. That’s what we all say we want. Now is the time to do it.
We must resist the temptation to “go 2D”—that’s what we call getting sucked into a screen. It’s horrible and anti-social. But by all means, use FaceTime or Skype to keep in contact with friends and family members, especially people who may be alone, lonely, or anxious. Be intentional about it. They will appreciate it. Those of us cooped up with family for the next few weeks might find that we start to irritate each other from time to time, but that’s far better than the loneliness others are probably facing. Think of them.
What can you do at home? Establish some sort of routine. If you’re working from home and haven’t done it before, you’ll be happy you did. Plus, if you have children and they’re taking classes and doing their work online, it will help if everyone has a schedule. I’m reminded of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, in which the title character, while a trade representative in Malaya, maintains a very precise and very English schedule despite being so far removed from home. It’s an attempt to retain his Englishness.
What should your schedule look like? Well, first of all (of course) you should read absolutely everything on American Greatness, every day. This is also a great time to start a Bible reading or devotional program if you don’t already have one. This is a good one.
Catch up on your reading. If you stick to your schedule, you’re going to have time for it. Think about the time saved just from your commute. Here are a few books I think you’ll enjoy:
Godfather of the Kremlin, by Paul Klebnikov. This book traces the rise of Boris Berezovsky, one of post-Soviet Russia’s first oligarchs. Klebnivov was the Moscow bureau chief for many years including when he wrote the book. However crazy you think that period was in Russia, I guarantee you, you aren’t even close. The book is painstakingly researched and documented, very well written, and if you are wondering just how accurate it is, consider that Klebnikov was murdered shortly after the book’s publication in 2000.
The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century, by Steven Runciman. Trust me on this one. Despite the rather uninviting title this is one of the most fun books I’ve ever read. Runciman is a wonderful, lively writer telling the real-life history of a group of pirates, adventurers, crusaders, and kings who shaped the pre-modern world.
The Thirty Years War, by C.V. Wedgwood. Another remarkable history of the war that served as the bloody bridge between pre-modern and modern Europe. The prose is sparkling and the history is told as a compelling story based on primary sources. It’s also available as an audiobook.
When you tire of reading and want to reconnect with your family, consider board games. Backgammon and chess have become a very active scene in our house this week.
And let’s not pretend that we’re not all streaming. My top pick right now is “Babylon Berlin.” It’s a German series produced for Netflix set in Weimar Germany. They just released the third season. Ostensibly, it’s a show about the investigation of a crime, but you find out very quickly that’s really a political drama about a period that has been very difficult for Germans to write about and one that hasn’t really interested anyone else to use as a period for a movie or television. This one is very well done: the writing, the acting, the production values. All very good.
Our ordinary lives and routines have been upended, but let’s see that as an opportunity to do some good even as we grapple with the very real challenges we’re all facing. It only seems like everything stopped. Life goes on.