As time goes on and the peak of the crisis seems to ebb, the patience of Americans wears thin. Economic and mental health concerns begin to weigh in more strongly. The second phase of the pandemic, at least in the United States, will prompt many questions about the tension between the duties of citizenship and the premium placed on individual rights.
Nothing good ever happens going out of the house . . . it’s just trouble out there.
“There’s no place like home.” At least that’s the message of a number of recent government-sponsored television spots featuring various celebrities. And it’s a familiar one. Home is “where the heart is,” it is where we take refuge and rest, it is where we come together with the people we love most. In the pre-pandemic world, what child did not squeal with delight at the prospect of a “snow day”? What adult did not fantasize about spending a “personal day” just doing nothing? What’s so bad about staying home?
Apparently, public service messages are not sufficiently convincing. The public square presently resounds with spirited debate about whether it is essential for everyone to stay home right now. No doubt there are reasons to wonder whether some states are over-extending their power and infringing on individual rights in the particulars of their “stay-at-home” orders. But on balance the initial urgent cry, articulated by public health officials, to flatten the curve in order to prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed and allow them to save those who could be saved still seems reasonable.
As time goes on and the peak of the crisis seems to ebb, however, the patience of Americans wears thin. Economic and mental health concerns begin to weigh in more strongly. The second phase of the pandemic, at least in the United States, will prompt many questions about the tension between the duties of citizenship and the premium placed on individual rights.
But there is another more fundamental question about human nature which lies beneath all of these important political ones. If the comforts of home nurture and console us, why do we feel the need to leave them in the first place? Let’s face it, even without the pandemic, it’s true what Larry David says: there’s plenty of “trouble out there.” The reason for our present cabin fever would seem to suggest more than simply “too much of a good thing.”
After stoking the hearth fires for more than six weeks, the most obvious reason is boredom. While television and the internet supply a steady stream of at-home distractions, after a while, we tire of screens and our own “four walls.” Mr. David’s wry comment that he cannot fathom the stupidity of missing such an opportunity as state-sanctioned sloth notwithstanding, Americans are itching to get out.
The world presents innumerable opportunities for finding new objects of interest or affection. Visiting a museum, attending a performance, or simply trying a new restaurant all play an important role in our basic emotional well-being. Who doesn’t feel better just getting out for a walk, taking in the signs of spring? But even the most trivial outing seems to point beyond the need for mere diversion. “Retail therapy” is not a lasting remedy, but the delightful prospect of something new reveals far more than a penchant for consumerism in the American soul.
Novelty attracts because it draws us out of ourselves, even if fleetingly. A new experience invites us to imagine new arrangements, new possibilities. What is more, it casts the familiar in a different light. When we finally emerge from our present crisis and have our fill of pleasant diversions, we will certainly take pleasure in coming home again. The walls will no longer appear to be closing in on us. They will provide the structure, solace, and security we sought from them in the first place.
The desire which compels us to engage with the outside world and experience something that is beyond our usual horizons cannot be squelched no matter how fearful we are of what public health officials tell us. The restlessness which underlies boredom or ennui seems hard-wired into our nature. Whether it results in anxiety or becomes channeled into creative energy, one thing is for sure: restlessness implies a lack. We are uneasy because we are incomplete; our longings remain unsatisfied, our affections search for an object and our activities a goal. In short, human beings seek self-transcendence.
In reflecting on his own misguided wanderings many centuries ago, Augustine said it best: “our hearts are restless ‘til they rest in Thee.” Human beings are never fully satisfied even in the fruits of their loftiest pursuits. There always remains another question to answer, another stone to overturn, more beauty to behold. We find that God’s creation continually invites us outside of ourselves. When we return, we recognize a change, one hopes, for the better; and yet, engagement with the world always leaves us wanting. And our wanting compels us to go out searching for still more.
To the religious, this makes perfect sense: infinite longings point to an infinite object. In the Christian faith, the object is actually a Person, and more precisely, three divine Persons. So the plot thickens: our longings will not be satisfied until we enter fully into relationship with that divine community. Self-transcendence turns out to involve engaging with the wider world generally, but specifically in the context of interpersonal relationships. At the heart of restlessness, we discover our social nature. We seek to know and love as well as to be known and loved. Aristotle’s observation that man requires more than just himself for his fulfillment and perfection sends us out of our homes, lovely though they may be, into the wider community.
For most people today, the desire to return to work entails more than the obvious financial considerations. Communicating and collaborating online simply is not the same as that accomplished by real human interaction. Perhaps one sees this most clearly in students who can’t wait to leave “distance learning” behind. As a teacher, I am personally grateful for the virtual discussion technology makes possible. But the experience of human beings working together toward understanding—in the flesh—is irreplaceable. And that is largely why, despite the astronomical cost of a college education these days, universities will (and ought to) remain in operation. One works and learns best when challenged and encouraged by others, especially friends, which brings us back to both Aristotle and Augustine.
Both thinkers would agree that human friendship cuts a sure path toward self-transcendence; an insight born out in the lives of every person, no matter the temperament. Even the most introverted among us quickly realizes how implausible and dreary the myth of self-sufficiency is. Friends draw us out of ourselves unlike anything else. And the benefits of friendship have more to do with what it asks of us than what it gives us. To be sure, friends offer assistance, good company, and emotional support; and particularly in our present circumstances, we welcome these offerings. But we uncover the more valuable treasures of friendship when we rise to the occasion of its demands. That is to say that the kind of friendship that makes us truly happy is the kind which calls us to be something greater than what we are.
In order to be a good friend, we must first be good ourselves. And in order to be good ourselves, we must have good friends. This is not the paradox it may seem. The desire we have to reach beyond ourselves seeks an exemplar. But the desire must somehow be for the good in the first place such that it recognizes the good in the exemplar. For Aristotle, this has to do with upbringing. For Augustine, it has to do with the imago dei. No matter, the point is, in some sense, the same. However we are “schooled” in goodness, our desire for it bespeaks the possibility of it. We cultivate friendships as a way of both answering the desires deep within our human nature and following their potential for a higher way of life.
It is no surprise that quarantine living hits hardest among young people who view their lives as open-ended. Loneliness strikes at everyone who is confined, but young adults feel more acutely the anxiety produced by isolation. In some real way, “social distancing” interrupts their efforts to realize who they will become. At a time when the possibilities for the good life should present themselves for consideration, the chaos caused by coronavirus thwarts desires and paints a narrower picture of what may be possible.
As the world begins to open back up, the young will be the first out the door. Those of us who are older will likely proceed a bit more cautiously and reflectively. We will perhaps be more discriminating about our outside errands and activities. We will have realized the benefits of a simpler life. But we will enjoy our outings and relish our friendships as never before. Having a conversation with someone, face-to-face and without a mask, will be a pleasure we won’t take for granted again, at least for a while. And until it becomes too familiar, we ought to take full advantage of it.
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The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash.