What has been the most challenging aspects of the current Coronavirus foryou For some, it has been thedevastating losses that they’ve endured. Is there any meaning to their suffering and loss? This is eternal question that bedevils usall. For the majority of us, thechallenge has been how to live our lives during this crisis? If we broaden the scope of our reflection,the challenge and opportunity has always been, how to live out this precious gift of life that we’ve been given? It’sjust that this current crisis has brought this challenge into a more immediate focus.
For many, myself included, the living out our lives during this currentcrisis has been compared to a jail house experience. Though if we are honest, the experience ismore like that of a house arrest as opposed to a full-on prison experience. But don’t tell that to the thousands of individuals confined to the Diamond Princess, currently docked in Yokohama,Japan. Many of them are going out oftheir minds and regard their cruise ship as a floating prison. For a fortunate few, they have a balcony totake in fresh air. Others paid more fora small window sea view for which I imagine they are now quite gratefulfor. Then there are those who are locked in internal cabins without a view. How intolerable. And all of them are residing in rooms that are slightly larger than a jail cell. But even so, they are living in more comfort than the vast crew who are living below the waterline in quarters that are much more compact. It is my sincere hope that the people stuck in Wuhan and the Diamond Princess will be able to end their confinement soon!
As for the rest of us, we can now empathize more with those who are incarcerated. Even though to varying degrees, we are freeto leave our residences to go outside, doing so is not without risk. So for the majority of us, we are confined to our homes with lots of time on our hands. Is this a good thing or not? How will we look back upon this experience? How have you been passing your time? Another one of these basic existential questions if we slow down to think about it.
Shawshank Redemption is a movie that I’ve shown often to help educatepeople to the concept of freedom, understood from an existential perspective. The movie is my manypeople’s all-time favorite list. Themovie takes place in Shawshank prison where the prisoners have the same dilemma that all of us are facing now, namely how to pass their time. Consider the following dialogue from the movie narrated by Red, the character played by the Morgan Freedman: “Prisontime is slow time. Sometimes it feels like stop-time. So you do what you can tokeep going...” “In prison, a man will domost anything to keep his mind occupied.” “Some fellas collect stamps. Others build matchstick houses. Andy builta library.” How are you passing yourtime?
What the prisoners at Shawshank Prison are facing is the same thing that we are all facing: Existential Vacuum. The concept of existential vacuum is advanced by Victor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy. Frankl was a psychiatrist who knows a thingor two about prison time. He survivedthe concentration camps but lost his entire family to the holocaust. Frankl believed that existential vacuum is awidespread phenomenon of the twentieth century. Another term for this phenomenon of emptiness is “Sunday Neurosis,” akind of depression which affects people who become aware of the lack of contentin their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves become manifest. Not a fewcases of suicide can be traced back to this existential vacuum. In his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl wrote:
At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animalinstincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured(such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. Think Adam and Eve and theGarden of Eden). No instinct tells himwhat he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).
Both conformism and totalitarianism were powerfully portrayed in Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne, the protagonist in the movie serves as a beacon for us as to how to deal with one’sexistential vacuum. Ironically, landing in jail set Andy free. Shawshank prisonwas his redemption. It awakened him tohis existence and helped him to find himself and his purpose in life. Might it be too much to ask the same of the Coronavirus?
While many here in China might not have heard of existential vacuum, many have become familiar with theterm 空心病popularized by 徐凯文，Deputy Director of the Center for PsychologyHealth Center for Psychological Health Education and Counseling at PekingUniversity. He found that like the apparently highly successful pre-prison Andy Dufresne in the movie, many of thetop university students in China suffered from a sense of emptiness. However, Frankl would disagree with thecharacterization of this sense of existential vacuum as a sickness. Instead, he would characterize the struggl earising not from the psychological dimension but the Noological (from the GreekNoos meaning spirit) dimension of human existence. Frank believed that:
Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict isnormal and healthy. In a similar sensesuffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptomof neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if thesuffering grows out of existential frustration. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic(producing disease). A man’s concern,even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distressbut by no means a mental disease.
Furthermore, Man’ssearch for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. Such tension is an indispensable prerequisiteof mental health. Frankl taught that:
Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such tensionis inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mentalwellbeing. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill.
What man actually needsis not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for aworthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
And one should not think that this holds true only for normal conditions; in neurotic individuals,it is even more valid. If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, the increase the load which is laid uponit, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So if therapist wish to foster their patient’s mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount oftension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.
According to Frankl,there is nothing in the world, that would so effectively help one to surviveeven the worse conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’slife. There is much wisdom in the wordsof Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In Frankl’s Nazi concentration camp experience, he could see that those who knew that there was a task waiting forthem to fulfill were most apt to survive.
So as may of us arestruggling to come up with how we will pass our time, have we found the whyfor which we are struggling? As for me,as written in the previous essay, I have tried my best to take advantage ofthis extended time of solitude to work on additional writing and video lectureprojects. This current essay is an extension of one of my writing projects. And I’m embracing my nerdiness for in addition to catching up on moviesand videos that I’ve compiled in my “To-Watch” List, I also I enjoy producing educational videos. Some play video games, I enjoy producing educational videos. Is this the best use of my time?
Consider the followingthought experiment proposed by the well-known existential philosopher FredrichNietzsche. In his first book Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche posed a challenge: What if you were to livethe identical life again and again throughout eternity – how would that changeyou?
What if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into yourloneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to liveonce more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, butevery pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterable small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the treesand even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and youwith it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.
“你现在的生活，和你曾经经历过的生活，你将必须再一次的经历，周而复始的经历；绝无新意，你生活中的每一样痛苦、快乐、思想、叹息，一切渺小或伟大的事情都会重返你的身上，并以同样的顺序降临 – 甚至是这只蜘蛛，这林间的月光，甚至是你我现在交谈的瞬间。存在的不朽沙漏反复的上下倒置，你仿佛一颗沙粒置身其中。”
What Nietzsche proposed as a thoughexperiment is to some extent being actualized now. Given the limitations imposed through thepractice of self-quarantine, I find that I am living pretty much the same dayover and over again without knowing when it will end. What Nietzsche is challenging us to think about or reflect upon now is, how am I finding it such that I am living the same day over and over again? We often hear the phrase to live everyday as if it was my last. Nietzsche’s iteration is can I truly be happy to live the same day over a thousand times. For me, the experience has not been as divine or blissful as Nietzscheproposed. I enjoy writing and video editing, but frankly it has gotten old and stale. Not that I would make other choices for writing and video editing is my form of building a library in prison. But at the same time, I yearn to go and play tennis and resume my ballroom dance lessons – pastime activities that I’ve taken for granted before. Similarly, I’mitching to travel abroad, especially since my Spring Festival Retreat in thePhilippines was cancelled. The funny thing is, if I were not so confined and restricted, I probably would simply choose to stay home and pass my days with the same routines that I’m basically engaged in now. However, the limitation of an experience increases the enjoyment of that experience. It’s more meaningful and desirable because it is limited. The poet Rainer Maria Wilkewrote, “beauty is but the start of terror.” We all desire what we cannot have. There is an existential abyss between I Want and I Must. Now that I “Must” stay home, my desire (Want)to get away from home is ever increased. If I had no such limitations, my experience of staying at home remain sun reflected, meaningless, and taken for granted. This is the gift of confinement, limitationand what death awareness can bring to us. If we are willing to reflect, perhaps this is the hidden gift concealedin the current Coronavirus Crisis. Whatever the case, I know I’m going to enjoy that first pizza I have(insert your favorite thing that is being kept from you during this crisis) whenall this is over. Until then, let’s allbuild our libraries in the midst of confinement.
诗人赖内·马利亚·里尔克（Rainer Maria Wilke）写道：“美不过是恐怖的开始。”（原句典出《杜伊诺哀歌第一首》：“美不是什么，而是我们刚好可以承受的恐怖的开始。”——译者注）我们都渴望得不到的东西。