By Robert Giannetti and Tom Trainor
There is lots of talk in the media right now about how unprecedented the situation of isolation is. This as a result of the social distancing mandated in the effort to defeat the Coronavirus pandemic. One has to realize that the fact of isolation has always been a part of the human experience when confronted with rampant illnesses and epidemics.
Self-isolating avoidance of the afflicted carriers of real or imagined contagion has always been humankind’s way of dealing with pestilence, whether in the form of leprosy, bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, polio, cholera, tuberculosis, or insanity. With nearly all these terrible afflictions there were periods of time throughout history when little was known about the causes of these diseases or how to treat and eradicate them. The tried and true approach was most often to stay away from the afflicted if one could. If one had sufficient means to retreat to a villa in the countryside, for instance, one might avoid the people who suffered from the plague back in the crowded cities. In the 14th Century writer Boccaccio’s work, The Decameron, those isolating themselves in their countryside villa whiled away their time by telling stories to one another.
More recently many can recall parents’ admonitions to their children to stay away from swimming pools in areas where polio raged. Social distancing is today’s strategy of avoiding infection of the novel Coronavirus . We know a lot more about the cause of this affliction than was the case with previous diseases and will one day surely develop an effective vaccine to treat it. But for now we need to keep our distance from one another with a time honored human response. History does not exactly repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. So, what we are experiencing now may be unique in degree but not in kind.
Let us not give unmerited distinction to this deplorable event by characterizing it as unique in human history. We have been here before and some future malady will bring us back again. It is the fate of humankind to be beset by such afflictions as it is the inherent nature of our ingenuity to find a way forward. There is nothing new under the sun. Life is suffering in varying kinds and degrees, and how we think about it matters in how we deal with its psychological effects.
I’m struck by two thoughts in the final line in the concluding paragraph above. The first is almost verbatim the words that the Buddha uttered more than two thousand years ago. His response to the universality of human suffering was the Noble Eight-Fold Path which emphasized “Right Understanding”, “Right Thought”, "Right Speech", “Right Action”, etc. There are three themes into which the Path is divided: good moral conduct, meditation and mental development, and wisdom or insight.
Bob’s essay talks about the need to have a global or macro view of our history and our culture. The last sentence states that how we think about these issues will dictate the quality of our mental health. So how should we interpret these events ? And how do we find the will to persevere?
A friend of mine works as a teacher to a difficult inner city high school population. He told me of the challenges of his work. I observed that he is fighting massive and institutionalized issues of racism, poverty, family dysfunction… But I further noted that he’s just one soldier and has limited resources. I suggested that he look for the “little victories”, that he perhaps “drill down” to a micro level in order to manage his expectations and see his successes. The Buddha also taught that even the smallest tasks (like now washing our hands) can be made into a prayer. And that all things can be made sacred.
My friend remembered the Christian tradition established by St. Therese of Lisieux who described “The Little Way”. St. Therese suffered greatly from tuberculosis (the scourge of her day) and she cited the technology of her time (the “lift” or elevator) as she described her worship: “We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead …I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection….I must remain little, I must become still less.”
A tough time can offer an opportunity to introspect or “reboot”. Certainly we need to find a way to work and to pay our bills and to take care of our home and family. But a new and unexpected pandemic has abruptly given us pause. In our lifetimes there hasn’t been a comparable event allowing for the sort of thinking that the Buddha or St. Therese describe. How frantic we all have become.
The “Great Isolation". The great yearning of humans for contact with one another. Throughout social media are shared videos of a Nessun Dorma rising from Italian balconies. Distant librarians read to children secluded in their homes. Familiar board games are played by families in the digital glow of online living rooms. The need for “connectedness” and the search for meaning in our lives are universal truths. Maybe we can thrive in this time of plague by being mindful of so many small links in the chains that bind us together.
robert m. giannetti
Robert M. Giannetti, former owner of Bob’s Olde Books in Lewiston, New York, received his B.A. from Niagara University and a Ph.D. in Renaissance English literature from Duquesne University. After several teaching assignments, foundation work, and business ventures around the country he returned to Western New York in 2006 to focus on writing, bookselling, and collaborative work with artists and musicians.