From my window, I can see a white mulberry, a tree I’m fascinated by—one of the reasons I decided to live where I live. The mulberry is a generous plant—all spring and all summer it offers dozens of avian families its sweet and healthful fruits. Right now, the mulberry hasn’t got back its leaves, and so I see a stretch of quiet street, rarely traversed by people on their way to the park. The weather in Wrocław is almost summery: a blinding sun, blue sky, clean air. Today, as I was walking my dog, I saw two magpies chasing an owl from their nest. At a remove of just a couple of feet, the owl and I gazed into each other’s eyes. Animals, too, seem to be waiting expectantly, wondering what’s going to happen next.
For the longest time, I have felt that there’s been too much world. Too much, too fast, too loud. So I’m not experiencing any “isolation trauma,” and it isn’t hard on me at all to not see people. I’m not sorry that the cinemas have closed; I am completely indifferent to the fact that shopping centers have shuttered. I do worry, of course, when I think of all the people who have lost their jobs. But, when I learned of the impending quarantine, I felt something like relief. I know many people felt similarly, even if they also felt ashamed of it. My introversion, long strangled and abused by hyperactive extroverts, has brushed itself off and come out of the closet.
I watch our neighbor through the window, an overworked lawyer I just recently saw heading to work in the morning with his courtroom robe slung over his shoulder. Now in a baggy tracksuit, he battles a branch in the yard; he seems to be putting things in order. I see a couple of young people taking out an older dog that’s been barely able to walk since last winter. The dog staggers while they patiently accompany him, walking at the slowest pace. Making a great racket, the garbage truck picks up the trash.
Life goes on, and how, but at a completely different rhythm. I tidied up my closet and took out the newspapers we had read and placed them in the recycling bin. I repotted the flowers. I picked up my bicycle from the shop where it had been repaired. I have been enjoying cooking.
Images from my childhood keep coming back to me. There was so much more time then, and it was possible to “waste” it and “kill” it, spending hours just staring out the window, observing the ants, or lying under the table and imagining it to be the ark. Reading the encyclopedia.
Might it not be the case that we have returned to a normal rhythm of life? That it isn’t that the virus is a disruption of the norm, but rather exactly the reverse—that the hectic world before the virus arrived was abnormal?
The virus has reminded us, after all, of the thing we have been denying so passionately: that we are delicate creatures, composed of the most fragile material. That we die—that we are mortal. That we are not separated from the rest of the world by our “humanity,” by any exceptionality, but that the world is instead a kind of great network in which we are enmeshed, connected with other beings by invisible threads of dependence and influence. That without any regard to how far apart the countries we come from are, or what languages we speak, or what color our skin is, we come down with the same illness, we share the same fears; we die the same death.
It has made us realize that no matter how weak and vulnerable we feel in the face of danger, we are also surrounded by people who are more vulnerable, to whom our help is essential. It has reminded us of how fragile our older parents and grandparents are, and how very much they need our care. It has shown us that our frenetic movements imperil the world. And it has raised a question we have rarely had the courage to ask ourselves: what is it, exactly, that we keep going off in search of?
The fear of getting sick has reminded us of the nests from which we hail and in which we feel safe. In such a situation, even the most assiduous travellers will always press on to some kind of home. At the same time, sad truths have been revealed to us—that in a moment of danger, our thought resorts once more to the limiting and exclusive categories of nations and borders. In this difficult time, we have seen how very weak in practice is the idea of a European community. The E.U. has forfeited the match, delegating crisis-time decisions to nation states. Old chauvinism has returned, bringing back the division between “ours” and “foreign”—in other words, exactly what we have fought against these past decades in the hope that it would never again format our minds. The fear of the virus has brought about the atavistic conviction that there must be foreigners to blame, that it is they who introduce the threat. In Europe, the virus is “from elsewhere.” In Poland, everyone returning from abroad is now considered suspicious. The virus reminds us: borders exist, and they’re doing just fine.
I also fear that the virus will alert us to another old truth: how very much we aren’t equal. While some of us fly off on private planes to homes on islands or in woodland isolation, others will remain in cities, operating power plants and waterworks. Still others will risk their lives working in shops and hospitals. Some will make money off the pandemic while others will lose everything they have. The coming crisis will undermine all of the principles that seemed to us so sound; many countries won’t be able to handle it, and in the face of their downfalls, new orders will awaken, as is often the case after crises.
We believe we are staying home, reading books and watching television, but, in fact, we are readying ourselves for a battle over a new reality that we cannot even imagine, slowly coming to understand that nothing will ever be the same. The condition of mandatory quarantine, of billeting the family at home, may make us aware of things we have no desire to admit: that our family depletes us, that the bonds of our marriage have long since slackened. Our children will come out of quarantine addicted to the Internet, and many of us will be aware of the senselessness and futility of circumstances in which we mechanically, by the power of inertia, remain. And what if the number of murders, suicides, and sufferers of mental illnesses grows?
Before our eyes, the smoke is dispersing from the civilizational paradigm that has shaped us over the past two hundred years: that we are the masters of creation, that we can do anything, that the world belongs to us. A new time draws near.
Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.