At the time of writing, I’m in the fourth week of lockdown where I live in Switzerland. The schools are shut, every day is a multitasking merry-go-round from hell where I simultaneously fail at work and parenting, some special holiday plans have evaporated and I’m jittery about the future. Overall, I know I’m one of the lucky ones, for a whole bunch of reasons. My family is healthy; I can turf my kid out into the garden; I’m not in a vulnerable group. Still, if there is any situation where I think we’re all entitled to unstiffen the upper lip and admit that fate has thwacked us on the side of the head with a damp woollen sock full of gravel, this is it.
Naturally, it’s a time to turn to books, not only because they contain the distilled wisdom of humanity, but also because they’re vastly preferable to the other options of alcoholism, DIY, Joe Wicks and bickering. I’ve written before about the power of comfort reading, and now is definitely the moment to soothe our jagged nerves with the gentle comedy of Jane Austen or PG Wodehouse. But while sunny works of reassuring fiction are the literary equivalent of a slice of cake, perfect to perk you up on a bad day, I’ve also found a healthy and wholesome sense of perspective in revisiting books that ask the big questions about how people endure. Somewhere, there is a mental balance to be struck between allowing ourselves to feel sad for what’s happening, and tooling up to stay as calm and positive as possible. Books can help enormously.
First up to read if you have stayed so long in the bath of self-pity that you’re puckered like a prune: Man’s Search for Meaning, a holocaust memoir by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Written in 1946, the book covers the author’s experience of life in a Nazi concentration camp, and his development of “logotherapy” as a way to treat psychological distress by focusing on meaning. It’s a vital book in its own right, of course: a visceral reminder of the systematic cruelty and terror that millions of Jews and other victims were subjected to within living memory. Read in today’s context, it jolts you into realising that every day of lockdown is a day in paradise.
Emaciated, shivering, beaten, trudging through the snow in broken boots at dawn for another day of hard labour: Frankl and fellow victims endured unremitting misery. As he wrote: “I remember drawing up a kind of balance sheet one day and finding that in many, many past weeks I had experienced only two pleasurable moments.” One of them was a chef who doled out “fair” starvation rations of watery soup. This quickly makes you realise that your daily life is bristling with pleasures, and you really shouldn’t be moping about that cancelled flight to Barcelona. The overarching message, in any case, is that it’s not trifling pleasure that sustains you, but a deeper sense of purpose. Working as a camp doctor to care for patients, even while exposing himself to deadly risks, in his view ultimately helped Frankl survive.
The other useful mental corrective I drew from the book was to stop fixating on when this will end. Frankl writes of an inmate who had a dream that the war would be over on 30 March; when that day approached with bad news of the continuing conflict, he became sick and died on 31 March. “To all outwards appearances, he had died of typhus,” writes Frankl, while speculating that the real cause was his despair, leading to a weakened immune response to a latent infection. It could have been a simple coincidence: Frankl has drawn some criticism for inferring that holocaust victims were in any way responsible for their fate. But the idea that it’s best to avoid fixating on time frames beyond our control is widespread, from the cliche of “take every day as it comes” to the character in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath who writes: “When I was in jail I never thought of the moment of liberation. I thought only of today, perhaps of the football match to be played on the following Saturday, never beyond.” This advice may be common, but it is still excruciatingly difficult to put into practice: it takes a crowbar to separate me from the data visualisation of how the epidemic curve is progressing in Switzerland.
At this point, it’s helpful to turn to philosophy, which can fill the gap in tough times for people who are not religiously inclined. While stoicism is used as a shorthand for tight-lipped emotional repression, with a big “S” it’s a classical school of thought that nurtures calmness, and is undergoing something of a revival two millennia after its birth. Recent and helpful books include Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is The Way and William Irvine’s The Stoic Challenge; all draw on original materials such as the Discourses of Epictetus and Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. One of the simple but powerful threads running through them is the need to separate what you can control from what you can’t control, and focus all your thoughts and efforts on the former. This is easier said than done when the stuff you can’t control is galloping through your social feeds, but it’s transparently sensible advice. You can control how you behave: following the lockdown rules, doing the best work you can in the circumstances, being a decent friend or neighbour, washing your hands with quasi-religious fervour. Forget about the rest; take a holiday from Twitter.
The stoic approach is easily mocked – if comfort-reading PG Wodehouse, you may come across Bertie Wooster rolling his eyes as the eternally unruffled Jeeves quotes Marcus Aurelius, concluding that the lauded philosopher-king is in fact “an ass”. Nevertheless, he was an ass with enough strength of character to apparently confront a plague and warring tribes with more equanimity than some of us show in front of a half-empty pasta aisle in Tesco. Another stoic technique was what Irvine described as “negative visualisation”: imagining your life deprived of things, in order to better appreciate them. In some ways, the coronavirus lockdown is a psychological experiment on a similar but massive scale: we will enjoy what we’re missing even more when normality – to some degree at least – resumes.
A pandemic is meaningless, the jump of a tiny non-living particle from one species to another, upending everything with random and terrifying power. But by looking to meaning in the way we respond, hunkering down with loved ones, thinking of how we want to live when it ends, and curling around ourselves around the right kind of book, you may find that the chaos is a tiny bit more bearable.