Zen and the Art of Coronavirus Survival

Zen and the Art of Coronavirus Survival

by Zach Marsh on Mar 20, 2020

Zen and the Art of Coronavirus Survival


“An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”                           Dom Cobb, Inception Warner Bros. Pictures 2010


In my younger, more cynical years a colleague said to me, “Zach, you’re too young to be so bitter.” I judge from his assertion, that he believed the “grumpy, old man” stereotype. There may be a modicum of truth to the stereotype of older, grumpy men; but for myself, now forty-seven years old, I believe I’ve grown more hopeful and more optimistic the more I’ve aged, and definitely less cynical. Yet, in our current environment, filled with fear and dread, even the most ardent optimist must find it difficult to brush aside the anxiety and look forward to brighter days. But hope comes in many forms, shapes and sizes. Hope is a choice and it is independent of externalities.

When I am struggling with anxiety or fear I find solace in reading. Sometimes it is for diversion, sometimes it is understanding. This week, I began re-reading The Plague, by Albert Camus.  It’s the story of one’s search and struggle to find purpose and hope in the face of death and misery.  Early in the novel Camus introduces the reader to a character, Tarrou, a visitor to the town which is besieged by the Plague. He is one of the novel’s heroes, the outsider, the man apart who seems to float above the scene. Camus wonderfully describes Tarrou as a man who, “had a habit of observing events and people through the wrong end of the telescope.” (Camus, 1948) One of the character’s gifts is finding ways to bring immediacy and importance to the present by subjecting himself to seemingly dreadful tasks such as, “spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in a dentist’s waiting room...(and) lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat.” The idea being that a forced unpleasantness can heighten one’s sensitivity to more pleasurable things deferred.

I’m sure we’ve all had in our lifetime some facet of our job with which we struggle. Mine is kind of a big facet, but I have a love/hate relationship with it. It’s that a big function of financial advisory is, shockingly, making plans and goals for the future. On the one hand, it places enormous amount of importance on the future, a future, by the way that none of us are guaranteed; and subsequently causes us to diminish our importance on the present, the only state that we are ever guaranteed. You see my point? Buddhist’s would have us believe that the key to happiness is to “be present” and to “live in today.” Some psychologists would tell us that depression is living too much in the past and anxiety is living too much in the future. Yet here, in my job, I have to sell the idea that people should borrow from present (sacrifice the known period) to pay themselves in the future (an unguaranteed period). This isn’t always an easy sell.

If you are like me, you prefer Mardi Gras to Lent. And a “bird in the hand” is definitely worth “two in the bush.” But this is where we can benefit from thinking like Tarrou, to start looking at life through the telescope backwards. The deferment, we assume, will not only help us finance our future but will help us reduce our perceived anxiety about that future. And this is exactly where we sit today with the virus. Last night, the governor of California put his state in “lockdown.”  This means that no one is allowed out of their house except for necessary essential tasks, like groceries and medical needs. If I were to guess, I foresee this mandate to soon be a reality everywhere in the country, which by the way would be a blessing. The quicker we act to assume short term pain (keeping ourselves in our home), the quicker we can emerge from this pandemic. Our country and our economy may not re-emerge as strongly should we allow this battle to be prolonged. If we starve off the bug by removing its host, that’s us, for a few weeks, we can deal a death blow to the scourge of 2020.

This is how I am hopeful. This is how I feel we will succeed. But it is not easy for us as Americans. Deferment is not our natural state. Yet maybe we can gain some comfort from Tarrou’s advice, that the sacrifice will make us all more grateful for our lives afterward. That is my secret hope. I could hope that this will bring our divided country together. Help us unite a broken political system and bridge a chasm that has formed between all of us. Yes, that is a worthwhile hope or wish, but then again it is an election year. More importantly, though, I hope we can all receive a bit of gratitude and love for life’s simple pleasures as soon as the plague subsides. In fact, that is the only outcome that I have any control over.

In her book, Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel reveals some new ideas about intimacy and love. Effectively she turns the telescope around. She asserts that desire is enhanced through absence and mystery. That too often, in couples, we smother the flames of desire by demanding too much intimacy from out partner; and as a consequence the relationship becomes a form of captivity. She writes that one of the driving motivations for her book and her ideas grew from her parents’ experience as Holocaust survivors, and the experiences of the other Jewish survivors she grew up among. Some survivors, she noted, emerged reasonably devastated by their experience in the camps. Those people struggled the remainder of their lives. Her parents, on the other hand, and others she met emerged determined to “charge at life with a vengeance and to make the most of each day.” (Perel, 2006)

When we emerge from this crisis, and I’m certain we will, I believe our country, as a whole, can charge at life with the same vengeance that Ms. Perel ascribes to her parents’ zest for life.  




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