As is true of anything with a deep and substantial impact, resulting from life itself rather than some external force that tries unsuccessfully to impose itself on us – the best thing about the coronavirus crisis is also its most painful aspect: cutting back. We’ve had to confine ourselves to small and defined spaces, to existential emptiness, to ascetic abstinence. We’ve cut back in one cruel, fell swoop. One day, without much fuss or sentiment, we all turned inward, disconnected from the generators outside.
Cutting back forces us to decide what’s really important, whom and what we really need and what we can actually forgo (without too much regret, surprisingly). We have been forced to decide whom and what we are prepared to take risks for, and whom we are not prepared to endanger even the slightest bit although the price is annoying asceticism (given a situation in which humanity has morphed into one long chain of infection).
It’s come down to how little one can buy and still be satisfied (and the extent to which we'd bought things in a wasteful way and then threw them out simply because we weren't paying attention). How much time we have now when we’re not wasting it in the course of long days at the office (that are often nothing but a series of distractions and meetings with no purpose other than showing one's presence). Whatever is necessary – is being produced. Whatever isn’t – is not (apparently because it’s not so badly needed after all).
And the downsizing we are experiencing is not just material or physical. It’s been a retreat into another era: another, former, forgotten way of life, where children were simply with their parents. Without so-called democratic schools, philosophic kindergartens, vegan and "experiential" after-school programs (in short, sophisticated ruses to assuage feelings of guilt with money).
How wonderful-exhausting-comforting-irritating-exciting-annoying it has been to collect ants with our offspring in the local park. Or to make lunch with them instead of sending them off every morning to those saintly women who were doing what we had avoided doing because we had been spread so thin, and had a career and other important matters to deal with (which collapsed instantly in the face of the virus outbreak).
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And now we see that these are children who – despite the boredom, the feeling of strangulation and the intense contact with their awful parents and their limitations – still prefer to be with them. Because we’re their parents, and this is our life’s work, as crushing as that might be.
Cutting back is no picnic. Quite the contrary. Sometimes it really borders on torture. It’s one of the most aggressive and thorny aspects of depression or fear, in which displays of a range of emotions are suppressed all at once. No more varied fields of interest or sources of excitement, no more new people or scenery – just what is necessary to survive and to allow one to position oneself in the face of what is at times a difficult and painful situation under a roof that is too low. Comfortable it isn’t. It also isn’t easy.
Nevertheless, it’s not clear that we need to be so afraid of it. Cutting back may be just one of a multitude of lessons that this virus has come to teach us. Who said things have to be comfortable? Who said they need to be easy? Was it the people who sold us excursions to islands in Thailand and whom we believed, who had the power to spare us existential boredom and emotional nothingness?
Cutting back has sent us on the most exciting kind of journey, into the heart of our own consciousness and that of our children. We need to hold on tight during such a trip because sometimes it’s scary – but apparently it's also of value. And that is no small thing.