Saturday, April 4, 2020


The phrase “voluntary quarantine” is technically a contradiction,
but we are now living through a period when the current health
emergency has already begun to change our language.

The 17th century origin of the word “quarantine” is the Italian
word for “forty days” --- a once traditional period of imposed
medical isolation. (Forty days and nights --- and years --- also
frequently appear as periods of human stress and trial in both
the Old and New Testaments.)

Today we have a modified version named “social distancing”
which isn’t really quarantine --- but is a radical change of
physical manners, that is, consciously expanding the space
between persons in public ,and abolishing all public physical
contact, including handshaking, hugging, embracing and kissing
on cheeks.

We now have a new labyrinth of solitude, to adapt the famous
phrase and book title of  philosopher/poet Octavio Paz. Imposed
solitude and its isolation represents a new and unfamiliar
experience for many young persons who have experienced a
continuum of family members, schoolmates and social friends
in most of their waking hours since they were born. On the other
hand, those same generations grew up and/or became adults in
the internet age and are accustomed to communicating online
and by cell phone. So these younger generations are already expert
in being “social” from a distance. Older generations are
increasingly challenged by imposed isolation because their social
experiences were mostly in-person with physical contact.

All generations face an unexpected dilemma --- what to do with
all the new waking time by themselves.

As I see it, this dilemma is also an opportunity ---an opportunity to
turn one’s attention to any number of matters  procrastinated or
ignored --- and an opportunity to expand personal interests both
physical and intellectual. Each of these opportunities has a payoff
not only in the present isolation, but after it’s over.

Of course, many now at home are sharing the time with others,
including parents, spouses, children, romantic partners, or friends.
This gives them daily social contact, but also risks the tensions of
overexposure. Ironically, those living alone have a potential
advantage --- the new imposed isolation is partly a variant by
degree of their traditional daily lives.

I realize the above is fairly obvious, and the personal need to
adapt and expand daily lives remains an individual’s choice.  The
duration of the imposed isolation defines the challenge. The longer
the duration the greater the challenge for societies and its members.

Like so many aspects of survival and endurance through a major
and shared crisis, attitude and character --- and not abstract
ideology --- are key to getting through it all. Widespread reports of
many helping and supplying the more vulnerable among us are an
early positive sign so far. Not all societies allow or encourage
self-motivated, personal and creative compassion, but where it
flourishes, the odds of getting through any long emergency are at
least improved.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reerved.

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