Siege Diaries 4/15/2020

It’s been a full month and a day since the siege began, and, of course, we all want it to be over, even thought we know it won’t be.  When they sent us to work from home 100% of the time in mid-March, my employer had optimistically told us it was until April 3.  That deadline blew by without comment.  We all knew by then how arbitrary it was.  By the end of March, I was predicting at least three months would elapse before we could even contemplate lifting the strictest measures.  Gradually, I see consensus aligning around that same milestone–although it’s as arbitrary as any, and we really don’t know yet what still lies ahead.

Guild Inn 024
The Guild Inn sculpture park, where pieces of Toronto’s architectural past are preserved.

The Siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days.  (well, technically 872 days, but if you throw in the month of August before the city was officially cut off, it’s about right).  Of course, no one is expecting the “long haul” of this pandemic to last quite that long.  Either it will run its course, or we’ll stamp it out by strictly monitoring it, or acquiring herd immunity, or a vaccine will be developed–in probably 18 months, maybe two years under the worst case scenario.  We also might find an effective treatment that helps manage the worst cases and to lower the mortality rate.  No quite knows what life will be like once the first outbreak is managed.  What does “restarting the economy” look like?  What new habits once unthinkable will become routine?

I won’t talk about that today.  I want to talk about my own journey, what habits might change for me as I think about my own future.   I just finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which has been quoted a lot recently as people face an uncertain future. In the first half of the book, Frankl talks about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during WW2, and about what helped him to survive–which he concluded was his ability to imagine the future, and to draw strength from the past.  Most importantly, he’s particularly known for asserting that finding meaning in life is far more important than “happiness”–partially because one can find meaning in experiences that involve adversity or suffering, as well as in those that involve love or enlightenment.  The key is how a person responds. This approach is not a cure-all, nor is it a quasi-religious solution:  There is no guarantee your suffering will get better, or that your hopes will all be realized–but that does not mean it was all without meaning within the world–particularly if you can find meaning in what you have been able to accomplish, no matter how “insignificant” it seems.  There are three pathways to meaning:  creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone, and in rising above a tragic or hopeless situation and turning a personal tragedy into a triumph.  There are no size requirements in any of these things–small deeds, simple relationships or work done well, or small setbacks can all produce meaning in the long term.

I talked yesterday about the importance, for me, of celebrating the life I have lived until now.  Frankl says, quoting an unknown poet, “What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you,” adding, in his own words, “Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great throughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.”  But I have been perhaps reluctant to get into specifics in imagine my future, believing in the importance of living in the present. And thinking about it, I haven’t been much good in recent years at imagining those long-term goals–and I suspect I know exactly where that comes from–spending 12 years of my life in post-secondary education, working towards the goal of my doctorate, only to leave that path behind. I’ve lived no more than about a year into the future since then, apart from some vague ideas of future vacations.  And yet, my thirst for knowledge, to create, to write has not abated.  Nor has my desire to make the world a better place.

So, where will this take me?  How can I take the story of my past and bend it into a better future, one I don’t talk myself out of, one where I can dare to not just follow vague dreams, but plans based the longer game?

A friend of me asked me a couple of days whether I’d ever considered running for public office.  I’m not sure whether that’s the answer, but it might be the right kind of question.  Becoming a stronger advocate for causes I believe in, both political and cultural, may well be the route I seek–and who knows where that may lead.