It was the 17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal who said in his book Pensées (Thoughts), ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’ Since March 2020, with Covid restrictions expanding and contracting and expanding again, many of us have had surplus time to sit quietly in a room. And how are we coping with that?
The pain of lockdown
Some of us have been able to use that time for reflection, to complete in-house tasks that have long been avoided, to focus on quality time with family, to work from a newly set-up home office. Some countries such as Australia have had a taste of travel by taking a joy-flight.
Others have agonised under the circumstances with an inability to work, with feelings of loneliness, with domestic issues, with a view of the confinement as a prison sentence rather than pleasant sojourn from normal freedoms. Not to mention the suffering caused by the disease itself.
Many of us have alternated between both positive and negative aspects, mentally and physically.
For someone who spends the majority of the year on the road and then to be confined to one place has been daunting for me. To begin with it was a novelty, to eat from the same breakfast bowl more than once, to have clothes in a wardrobe rather than a suitcase, to see the same view out of the window, day in, day out. The novelty wore off after a week. So how have I coped since?
Lessons learnt from travel
Never one to suffer with ennui there has been plenty to keep me occupied, such as online travel experiences (not the same). Yet the core of my life, travel, has gone, and with it a core part of myself. Yet it is the experience of travel that has taught me how to cope with the isolation. And the method has been by applying the same level of intrigue that I would normally use in a foreign destination to that of more familiar surroundings.
When we travel we notice things, our eyes are wide open. And when visiting new destinations often smaller curiosities hold as much interest as the primary attractions. The way people greet each other in the street, the contents of supermarket shelves, the strange fashions adorned by the locals.
The eyes wide open principle
This eyes-wide-open view sparked a memory from a few years ago when on a trip guiding a student group in Berlin. We participated in a walking tour of the city with a local expert. One of the students appeared more interested than the others in what we were seeing and learning about, in particular how modern history is often symbolically represented in the city. Everything she viewed she did so with an eager eye. Towards the end of the tour she pointed out an orange object inscribed with German writing on a lamppost, one of many that she had seen similarly positioned during our walk. She asked the local, ‘What does this represent?’ with the same keenness that she had displayed throughout. ‘Is it a symbol of the struggles of the people of East Berlin? Is it a Stazi spying tool? Is it a message box that was used by the resistance? After a momentary pause our informed guide replied, ‘It’s a trash can.’
So, I decided to apply her enthusiastic methodology while stuck in London in the early part of the lockdown. With outdoor exercise permitted I took walks in the locality, noticing things I hadn’t taken too much interest in before; the strange beauty found under bridges, artfully abandoned rent-a-bikes, the changing nature of gardens in their spring awakening.
I noticed one day a squirrel who was either fighting or playing with a magpie, it was hard to tell which as they acrobatically danced around each other. It occurred to me that, although accustomed to seeing squirrels, never had I seen this happen before. Observing the familiar had revealed some surprises. I had found joy in watching the antics of a creature who ordinarily I viewed as a pest going after my lunch in the park. (To explore more benefits that can be gained from walking do have a look at this article, ‘The Pilgrim’s Way out of a Pandemic’.)
As the seasons change I trust this intrigue will continue, and to feel the element of happiness that it brings. I hope all of us can find some happiness in these uncertain times, and to appreciate our surroundings wherever we are. And in the future to greatly appreciate travel and all that it offers when we gain back our freedom of movement.
I know the next time I visit Berlin I’m going to hug an orange trash can.