This is a particularly joyless March and what have we got to look forward to? April, which T.S. Eliot called the cruelest month.
There’s angst all around. It’s impossible to have even a casual conversation with a stranger without the dreaded COVID-19 virus being raised, let alone dinner with friends or a few hours on social media.
We don’t know whether to be afraid or whether to risk being reckless by going to a restaurant, hockey game or pick up a friend at the airport.
We’re worried about the unknown ‘what next’ because even when there is a lull in the seemingly endless news coverage of all things viral, there’s so much more bad news.
The stock market collapse, the joyless battle of the American grandpas for president, the oil shock caused by a seemingly crazed prince, continuing migrant crises in Europe and the Americas, riots in India and so on and so on.
I want to run away from it all. Except for the virus, I would literally have been packing my suitcase right now for Bhutan — the first place on Earth to put happiness before the economy.
But COVID-19 put a stop to that.
My trip was postponed because of the turmoil of changed and cancelled flights, not fear of catching the virus. Ironically, it was only in cancelling that we discovered we’d been rebooked on a return flight that left a day later, took 35 hours with three stops and landed us in Detroit with no indication of how we’d get home.
I’m relieved, but grounded and surrounded with fear of the unknown. How do I — how do any of us — find happiness now when it seems there’s nowhere safe to go?
Naturally, I turned to Google. It’s perhaps a sign of the times that among the first quotes that came up was this misanthropic one: “Happiness comes from peace. Peace comes from indifference.”
That misanthropic recipe from tech entrepreneur Naval Ravikant belies the research, which says the opposite. Happiness comes from engagement, social contact, a feeling of belonging.
Then, up popped Marie Kondo’s exhortation to “spark joy” by decluttering. I nixed that as an immediate solution. But it’s something to keep in mind if ever the time comes for self-isolation.
Beyond that are dozens of others advising that the route to happiness is to find one’s “authentic self” or one’s “inner awesomeness.”
I retreated to the kitchen and put on a pot of soup. But rather than the usual Zen of chopping vegetables as the stock bubbled, it reminded me that I couldn’t find any lentils on the grocery store shelf Monday. Should I join the panicked rush? What if the crisis is real?
Most of us are urban-dwelling, just in time people. Grasshoppers, not ants. We’re a frail lot too when you consider the Inuit and Dene in the north, Andean highlanders in the south, nomadic Mongolians or our ancestors.
That’s why I travel, to see how others live. It’s how I’ve come to be on six of the seven continents and travelled in more than 40 countries. It’s why Bhutan beckoned and not a Caribbean beach.
It’s why on a gloomy, rainy day with a case of fake jet lag from the time change, I went looking and found happiness at the Museum of Anthropology. Pulling open drawers, there are small things of beauty and purpose. Towering poles are testament to survival and renaissance against astounding odds.
Wandering aimlessly, it’s impossible not to see the interconnectedness of human imagination and endeavour from the fearsome to the sublimely decorative to the practical.
(If fear or the virus keeps you home, you might want to try it virtually. The collection is online at http://collection-online.moa.ubc.ca/)
There were spears, swords, fertility figures, wedding dresses, bowls, spoons, as well as religious objects and necklaces with charms meant to ward off the unforeseen, the unpredictable and the deadly that have always stalked us.
On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I took a tour of Mary King’s Close where in 1645 the pneumonic or ‘black’ plague stalked the residents of the crowded underground tenements.
Their doctors dressed in long leather cloaks with large brimmed hats and wore grotesque, beaked masks made of tin and filled with herbs to repel the evil smells that were thought to carry disease. The sight of today’s health-care workers in HAZMAT suits, N-95 masks, visors and gloves are not less disturbing, albeit far more effective.
Humans understand science better now than in the past. With every new outbreak from HIV/AIDS to Ebola to SARS, the time from first detection to getting it under control has improved. Yet, the unseen and the unknowable remains no less frightening to us than it was to a 17th century Scot or a 19th century Haida.
Where once people flocked to church looking for benediction and salvation, these days they head to Costco.
But for some peace and perspective? Try some homemade soup and some quiet time at a museum … Just don’t touch your face and make sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before you leave.