Seth Matthew Fishman started social isolation with grand plans. An assistant professor of education and counseling at Villanova University, Fishman thought he’d have time to read professionally and personally, revamp his exercise routine, perhaps do some home repair, and learn a language.
“Pretty much none of that’s happened,” he said.
Instead, Fishman has found ways to do what he jokingly called productive procrastination.
The gist of the article is that due to stress over the pandemic, both students and teachers alike are finding it difficult to concentrate on reading. I don’t doubt that’s true, but at the same time, the moral of the story here is “…and that’s okay.” Well, sure; as always, if what you want is an excuse for not doing the things you claim to want to do, a pandemic is a very good one (and at least it’s a nice break from the usual complaining about how technology has shriveled our attention spans and made it impossible to concentrate). Disasters do have a way of clarifying priorities. But perhaps you’d prefer to try being the sort of person who doesn’t make excuses and whine for reassurance? That’s also an option, you know. It’s all a question of emphasis. Are you defined by your restraints or by your improvisational skills?
I’ve been reading at the same pace as before, mostly a couple hours before bed. I’ve had to creatively reinvent my exercise routine. I’ve done some home improvement projects and lots of cleaning. And if you want to be generous and count Duolingo as a legitimate option, I’ve been practicing in a few languages every day (for over two years now). I can assure you this is not because I’m some sort of übermensch. I don’t even mention it to boast, because it’s not anything special. It’s all due to habit. Montaigne called habit “a violent and treacherous schoolmistress,” one who forbids us from noticing just how strange and contingent most of our bedrock practices and assumptions are. That can be true, but if there’s anyone you can trust to keep her head while everyone else is losing theirs, it’s that same schoolmistress. There’s no one better to have at your side during a crisis.
W.H. Auden said about Freud that he was no longer a person, but “a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our differing lives.” Freudianism per se might not be so prevalent anymore, but if one had to identify a contemporary climate of opinion, I couldn’t name a better candidate than what I think of as “emotional incontinence,” the deformed offspring of the therapeutic trend in recent decades. (Maybe Oprah is the modern climate of opinion.) The emphasis is always on making a spectacle of our moments of weakness, seeking and expecting reassurance. Just recently, we were treated to the sight of a cable news personality telling us about how he crawled into bed and cried for “our pre-pandemic lives.” I may be cold and unfeeling, but I don’t find this sort of thing #stunning or #brave. I find it kind of tawdry, actually. I was not in need of permission from a complete stranger to wallow in my feelings. I don’t think that sort of wallowing is healthy in any event, as it too easily becomes dwelling. This feels like an imposition to me, like I’ve been emotionally flashed by some pervert in a trenchcoat while I was sitting quietly, minding my own business. I didn’t ask to see your anguished tears! Put that away! What the hell’s the matter with you?
Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe this sort of public therapy is just further confirmation of Robert Putnam’s thesis in Bowling Alone, that increasing numbers of people have no meaningful intimate relationships, so they seek that sort of connection with strangers through media. But perhaps there’s a middle ground between drill sergeant-callousness and talk-show therapeutics? Perhaps we could acknowledge fear and weakness as understandable and inevitable without becoming exhibitionist about it? Maybe those sorts of feelings should only be shared with spouses, family and close friends out of a (gasp!) sense of social duty?