For all our advanced technology and medical innovation, the most effective response so far to the COVID-19 epidemic is a tool more than 1,000 years old: quarantine. The word comes from the Italian for 40 ― the number of days ships arriving in 14th-century Venice needed to wait offshore to be considered clear of the plague, but there are earlier references among the ancient Greeks and in the Bible. It’s sobering to realize how much we still rely on this simple, even primitive public health measure to keep us safe.
Of course we want every treatment and discovery modern medicine can provide. But to survive this surreal period with our sanity intact, we also need to access those timeless aspects of our lives that are not dependent on technology, jet-age conveniences, or a roaring stock market. These are the integral qualities that we can take with us anywhere, including inside the house: our compassion, our creativity, our five senses, our sense of humor. Connecting to these time-tested practices is beneficial always, but it is critical now.
Community Voluntary quarantine feels a little like a snow day in the spring: Kids are home from school; no one is driving anywhere; way too many Twix bars are consumed. But one of the pleasures of a snow day is how it sends everyone into the street to dig out their cars or shovel the walk. Many of us live among neighbors we hardly talk to. Now is the time to stand a safe distance, across streets largely free of cars, and call to each other about the weather, the weirdness, the meal you cooked entirely from your pantry. You don’t have to be on a balcony in Italy to serenade each other.
Cooking The ban on eat-in restaurants has forced fair-weather cooks to get reacquainted with their kitchens. But cooking at home can be comforting, creative, and impart a sense of control in these uncertain days. And don’t overlook other low-tech entertainments: jigsaw puzzles, knitting, books, sending greeting cards to far-off friends (because these days, all of our friends are far off). Sure, there’s content galore on our devices, and it’s wonderful that shuttered museums are offering virtual tours of their collections. But the trouble with screens is that anxious, breathless, blood-pressure-spiking “news updates” are just a click away.
Nature It’s everywhere (even outside a closed window), endlessly engrossing, and free. The natural world abounds with lessons for challenging times. Our moods blow in and out like the weather. The truth of impermanence is in every ephemeral spring blossom. Nature’s caprices — droughts, frosts, blights — remind us we have only the present moment, but there is no act of faith quite like planting perennials.
Altruism There is no denying the hardships and suffering that have descended in these few weeks, and more is to come. But someone is almost certainly worse off than you. Being altruistic doesn’t have to mean donning sackcloth or giving away half your income. It’s just offering to pick up a few extra groceries for a shut-in, or checking in on someone living alone. It’s about being patient with your co-workers who don’t grok Zoom. Resisting the urge to hoard at the grocery store is also altruistic: Leave that last can of tuna for someone else.
Calm The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers insights into difficult situations. He described his work with Vietnamese refugees who fled their country in crowded boats at the end of the war. When the refugees met storms or other dangers, he said, if everyone panicked, all was lost. But if just one person stayed calm, the entire boat had a better chance of survival. This tale is about our interconnectedness, something highlighted by the collective responsibilities of social distancing. But it is also about the benefit of stillness. Our frenetic lives suddenly have been idled. We can take advantage of the quiet to reflect on what’s most important, and let calm and its wisdom creep up on us.
The coronavirus has taken away the Boston Marathon, the Kentucky Derby, most international travel, our book groups and bowling leagues, Broadway plays, a big hunk of our salaries and 401Ks, commencements, church services, even the funeral mass. It’s time to cherish the things that can’t be taken away.
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Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.