Or How I Learned to Stop Freaking Out and Love Isolation
by Steve Weiner, 1 April 2020
It’s going to be a rough two week period.
There have been many turning points over the Big Reset these last few months, but none more monumental than the President of the United States saying those words while announcing the projected US death toll in the White House Briefing Room. Forget where we were a few weeks or a few months ago. Forget who you voted for in 2016 or who you really wanted to win in the primaries. Instead, consider that the best case estimates figure that nearly the same amount of Americans will die in the next few weeks due to COVID-19 as did in all of World War II. These estimates are in spite of the current social distancing posture, which means President Trump has groked the concept of flattening the curve and if we relax mandates to stay at home we risk greater exposure and more fatalities.
So get used to being wherever you are for a bit. I hope it’s a comfortable spot and you are copacetic with your roommates.
I’m no stranger to forced isolation. Beyond being an introvert, my first real job was on a nuclear submarine, which means I spent my mid-20s living in a steel tube cut off from the outside world. In our “office”, we relied on a machine to generate oxygen, though that often was broken so instead we burned special candles that produced breathable air. Seawater was distilled each day for showers and drinking. And the nuclear reactor had decades of fuel, which enabled us to dive beneath the waves for indefinite periods. We were practically limited only by the amount of food we could stuff in every nook and cranny of the ship. After a week or two, we’d run out of fresh items and from then on we ate only non-perishables. Our communications link had less bandwidth than my dial-up modem in the 1990s and we were permitted to send text-only emails to friends and family at certain times and in certain locations so as not to risk being detected. All communications on and off the ship were screened for sensitive information. There were very few secrets amongst the crew of 100 men (women were integrated into the force a few years later on).
Contrary to popular belief, no one on my ship went crazy. Since submarine service is voluntary, there’s definitely some self-selection at play, however it’s impossible to really know whether you can handle being disconnected until the hatch is sealed and you go deep. It’s unnatural to live underwater – humans evolved from the primordial ooze to walk on land, breathe air, and interact with others. Whenever I tell someone about my old life under the waves I always get the same response: I could never do that, I would go crazy. The truth is, if you had to do it, you probably could.
As of the time this text is published, nearly three-fourths of Americans are getting a taste of life on a submarine by being ordered to take shelter in their homes.
I’m finding my previous underwater isolation to be a familiar framework for my current circumstances. I’m far away from my home, in a new country where my communication is limited (because I don’t speak the language), and I can’t leave whenever I want. At times I feel out of control and I have to remind myself that I am not alone. Everyone is deployed in their own personal submarine right now.
Forced isolation isn’t just the only prescription, it is a giant behavioral experiment that began without asking our consent to participate. It will test our resolve to be uniquely human — to survive with our thoughts, ignore impulses, and evolve beyond whatever priors we arrived with. While we may be able to predict the death toll, the individual psychological impact and system responses won’t be as easy to forecast. Having been given this gift of time and space, I am trying to work out what those might be. But first, a quick look back…
The Plague, written by Albert Camus in 1942, provides a fictional account (perhaps loosely based on the cholera epidemic) of the possible effects on the human condition. What we’ve seen as obvious imbecility exhibited by spring breakers in America is captured perfectly by Camus who wrote that “stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.” Even for the most well-intentioned and globally-minded among us, indefinite isolation can still make us feel anxious or tortured. To this, Camus offers us a core principle of Buddhist teachings: “He’s incapable of suffering for a long time, or being happy for a long time. Which means that he’s incapable of anything really worthwhile.”
History gives us some hope. During the Great Plague of 1665, Isaac Newton – then a student at Cambridge – was forced to leave campus as a precautionary measure, and went to his family estate in the country. There his brain was freed up and he began work on some of the world’s most monumental discoveries: calculus, optics, and gravity. He called the subsequent time his annus mirabilis, his “wonder year”. I’m optimistic that similarly profound achievements are happening in isolation all over the world. Hopefully, we’ll soon have a cure to this fucking thing, but why shouldn’t we also surface from the depths with action plans to eliminate poverty or reverse climate change?
Even though there are many flaws with the data that’s been collected regarding COVID-19, we understand enough about this virus to create predictive models to enable civic leaders to make public health decisions to slow the spread if we alter human behavior. For those who were shocked by President Trump’s about face on data-driven decision making, behavioral science has something to say about this. (A good time for a disclaimer that I’m not formally trained in this discipline.) When you ask people to behave in a new way for two weeks in order to prevent millions of deaths, the action (or in this case, the absence of action) feels more achievable and is directly connected to an outcome. You can hold your breath a long time if you’re also staring at a clock. Try it.
Humans rationalize so many reasons why we shouldn’t do what we are told. I need food is a pretty good reason for people to break isolation and increase risk to themselves and the community. I need to go to the bank is a less good reason, though in times of economic uncertainty, it’s understandable. I miss being social and I’m going crazy is the least good reason, but the longer we remain in isolation, the more difficult it will be to overcome the human instinct to rationalize what we cannot see: that staying at home is the only thing that works to stop the spread at the present moment.
A bit of cold water on the face of the two-week behavioral reset is that until a vaccine is discovered or the vast majority are infected and herd immunity is achieved, we can’t declare victory and go back to normal. Realistically, much of humanity will be isolating for months or longer. That’s why we must develop the life-saving habit of staying at home and quickly learn to adapt to a new condition of human existence.
More to follow …
To contact the writer, send an email to [s] at [veryscarce.com]