I stood by a street that was eerily peaceful. Four lanes of asphalt, and not a car in sight. I could jaywalk with impunity, which was good, because no one wanted to push the buttons of the crossing lights nowadays.
In the park, the serene scene continued. Birds chirped loudly. The grass greened up. Everyone and their dog paced the long, multi-use paths. It was an artist’s impression of a perfect spring day, and yet standing in the middle of it, it felt ominous, oppressive, and wrong.
No voices of children called out from the playground. No greetings crossed the wide gaps of space between the people. Dogs were pulled safely to one side by their leashes, away from nonexistent eager petting hands. The basketball court was empty, haunted by the creak of balls swishing through the baskets. And the sounds of nature swirled everywhere—loud rustles, loud bird calls, loud gusts of wind.
This was not the soothing return of nature, the quiet peace one feels on a mountain trail, or in the midst of a majestic forest. It was not the settled comfort of being alone in a place that cares nothing for the tempests of social media, or the rat race of human ambitions, or the bustle of the city. We lamented the disconnection of our culture with our natural world in recent decades, and rejoiced to see small signs of nature returning to our cities during the pandemic—the swans in Venice! the cleaner skies! the returning birds! But standing in the midst of the supposed natural resurgence was not calming, and not peaceful, and did not feel like a return to a lost paradise.
Inside the house, it was the same. The beginning of the pandemic greeted us with nostalgic promises of happy families baking bread together, and learning together, and growing closer together. It promised to reveal the joys of home to a new generation that was too busy to settle down and recognize these joys. It promised long hours of reconnection, and space away from the rat race to learn new skills, and time to remember what makes us human (hint: the answer was not supposed to be our public role in society). But the falsity of that promise for many people unraveled all too soon—no one could stand empty time without work, the home was not enough to fulfill us without a job or a role in society or social connection to those outside the family. The merest hint the lockdown could extend without an end was met with outrage. We could not handle another moment of baking sourdough bread and learning Mandarin on Duolingo and pondering what our lives were truly all about—the answers unnerved us. What made us us seemed to be our ability to go out, to interact with the world and be impacted by it, to share experience with our social networks and contribute to others’ lives. We wanted to try on our different selves in all the different social contexts we had before. And despite the toll of the hustle and bustle and grind of our previous lives, we concluded space to escape that hustle and bustle was not a blessing, but a prison.
What did it mean to be human? The answer did not seem to be found in any experience parallel to being the tiny pioneer family isolated in a log cabin on their own in the midst of the wilderness, doing what circumstances dictated necessary to survive. It turns out only a select few humans can follow along that path. The rest of humanity must swarm, and interconnect, and live in community and society, and never be content to look inward alone and not outward.
And the lack of cars on the road, the lack of voices in the park, the lack of city noises every time we ventured out of our doors did not remind us of a pristine natural state that would be a joy to return to, but it hammered home our losses—it was an eerie reminder of everything that had been interrupted, everything that we did not know would return again. In the mountains, the silence settled us. In the city, it brought unease.
Now much of the world is ready to reopen again, society ready to rush into public spaces and attempt to function with the virus in our midst while controlling its outbreaks, and there’s a sense of relief that is surprising in the face of a situation that has not changed drastically since before the lockdown. The risk is marginally lower than it used to be. But what has also changed is our measurement of the value of public life. It was easy to say before—why is that open? Shut it down! Sidewalk cafes and picnics in the park and kicking around a soccer ball are not worth the risk. But now those simple actions are filled with meaning—the two kids kicking a soccer ball back and forth in the park are two beings forging a connection not mediated by technology, and they fill our environment with the noise of human society. The value of humans acting like humans is more visible to us. It’s hard to say exactly why, to say what intrinsic quality in sitting two meters apart on a sidewalk patio at a local restaurant gives it value, but we know it’s there now.
Humans have built society and community and culture. We’ve often gone overboard, driving people to grind in their careers and miss the natural joys around us. But the other extreme, of retreating into our own little circles and cutting off the public sphere, has been shown to be a false escape as well. We may well have rediscovered some of the joys of the domestic sphere, but the joys of the public have been revealed as well. Perhaps in the end, our awareness of what has value will help us to find a shaky balance as we reopen.