I drove into the city on the weekend to have lunch with my son. A trip that normally would take 35 minutes took half that.
There were very few cars on the road – an upside to self-isolation, I thought. When we walked into historic Gastown to look for a place to eat, the streets were eerily empty. There were certainly a few people strolling the sidewalks, but not nearly as many as there should have been on a glorious sunny afternoon.
We found an excellent outdoor café we’d been to a few times. There were maybe five tables with people at them, maybe 15 folks in all, in a space with a capacity for easily more than a hundred. We ordered a couple of beers and tried to discuss anything but the topic that hung in the air. But every time you looked around, you couldn’t help but be reminded of the extraordinary moment in which we are living.
Then a funny thing happened.
A few more people showed up. And then a few more. And then a few more after that. An hour after we arrived for brunch, the patio was full. The inside of the restaurant was empty, but the outside was packed, mostly with millennials, but not all.
I know there are some people reading this right now thinking that this is actually awful. That people shouldn’t be gathering in restaurants, even outdoors. Didn’t France just close all of theirs, after all? And maybe that’s ultimately what will happen here. Restaurants will be forced to shutter or drastically limit their seating. Maybe bars will have to do the same. Hell, if Ireland can close their pubs, anyone can.
But I have to say, for the couple of hours I was on that patio, sharing a beautiful day with others (while carefully ensuring I wasn’t within sneezing distance of anyone), it sure felt good. This ominous cloud under which we exist was temporarily lifted. People were talking and laughing and generally having a good time, like they would on any typical Sunday afternoon. The normalcy of it all helped make the world seem less terrifying than it does now.
It may be the last time for a while before I’m able to do something like that again, one of hundreds of activities we take for granted that we can’t do anymore. Still, for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, it gave me hope, amid the gloom. Just as videos of quarantined Italians singing from their balconies, or Spaniards taking to their apartment terraces to clap in appreciation of the country’s front-line health-care workers have, it made me feel we’ll survive this.
The news about COVID-19 is likely going to get worse and much more concerning in the coming days. More things will be closed off from us. Our world will shrink even further. And the worry and uneasiness it will create in all of us will test our faith in many things: government, our institutions, even our fellow human beings. We will crave routines we no longer have. But we must resist the urge to become depressed about it all.
One way is to seek refuge in the words and thoughts of those who have comforted people before in perilous times.
The French writer Albert Camus, for instance, wrote some of his most important work in the mid-1940s, a period far bleaker than the one we’re in now. In his seminal essay The Almond Trees, Mr. Camus urged us to remember that our job as humans is to mend what has been ripped apart – to give happiness a meaning to peoples “poisoned by misery.”
“Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end,” Mr. Camus wrote. “Civilizations do not die so easily. … It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair.”
But perhaps the author’s most fitting quote for our times comes from his novel The Stranger.
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there is an invincible summer,” he wrote. “And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
We are stronger than we realize. We will get through this.
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