Put our time in confinement to good use
I can’t remember when I first heard the word limbo. Not the dance where you get low and try to clear the pole, but the waystation, the in-between place, where souls are consigned.
Limbo is associated with Catholicism, but was never official doctrine. It was a softening of the teaching of the philosopher Augustine, who believed that infants who died without being baptized would go to hell.
Instead, the church said, such children would end up in limbo, where they would experience no sensory pain, but also would never be able to see God. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI effectively did away with limbo, replacing it with the “prayerful hope” that unbaptized babies would reach heaven.
Limbo comes from the Latin limbus, meaning edge or boundary. Beyond its religious meaning, limbo is defined as “a place of confinement”; “a state of uncertainty”. Sound familiar?
Like the passengers on the plane that crashed in “Lost”, we are now stuck in a collective limbo, so together and yet so alone, facing some hard lessons. If we don’t learn them, we’ll either perish or keep landing right back here, wishing, wondering, waiting for Godot.
What are these hard lessons? I’m no scholar, but I do know what it means to fiddle while Rome burns. I recognize that you cannot be this greedy, selfish, neglectful, entitled, and generally clueless for this long and expect there to be no consequences.
I think we can all admit we’ve been due for a comeuppance when it comes to how we treat the environment. Sooner or later Mother Nature was going to give us a smackdown. She tried to warn us with the fires and the floods and the freaky weather. We didn’t listen, so she pulled out the big guns.
That’s lesson numero uno to take from limbo. Respect the earth. And science. And people who know about the earth and science. On a related note, while Covid-19 has taken so much from us, it’s also given us a chance to reconsider what we really need. In a recent New York Times piece called “What Does the Good Life Look Like Now?” the author took stock of her pre-pandemic spending habits, cash she’d been dropping on a personal trainer, Pilates classes, facials, cappuccinos — and now plans to rein all that in.
That got me asking whether I really need to buy a three-dollar cup of tea every day. (Yes. I’m totally addicted to the ritual and the caffeine.) But maybe I don’t also need a $14 salad. I won’t pretend that once this is all over I’ll be giving up pedicures or my gym membership, but I will aim to maintain some of the self-sufficiency I’ve been forced to develop during this time. I can make more of my own salads. It’s not that hard to massage kale.
Another lesson: America needs to make more stuff. We’ve gotten really good at pushing around giant piles of money and kind of let the whole using our hands to create actual goods thing fall by the wayside. All you entrepreneurs out there — please use this time to think about how we can put people back to work making things we’re going to need on the other side of this.
Rather than figuring out how to perfect isolation, let’s come up with ideas that will allow us to be together again, to be out and about, safely and without fear. Who can make a tiny washer-dryer just for masks and gloves? Or a robot that can disinfect the insides of planes, trains, and automobiles? Anyone working on a voice-activated ice cream scoop that’ll be ready by August?
On a more philosophical level, it’s important to remember that this limbo wasn’t caused by a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, a world war or an alien invasion. We’re here because of a virus. In scientific terms, a virus is an infectious agent that replicates only within the cells of living hosts. It’s also defined as a corrupting influence on morals or the intellect; a poison. Let’s remember what Agent Smith had to say on the subject in “The Matrix”:
In Smith’s view, humans don’t get the virus. We are the virus. And we’re too stupid to know it. To understand that, yes, we get infected, but we also infect. A vaccine may take care of the former, but it won’t do squat for the latter. That, my friends, is on us.
In a recent briefing, Governor Cuomo spoke about the connection between crises and character. “When the pressure is on you really get to see the true colors of a person and what they’re made of,” he said. “People I thought were strong under pressure, they just crumbled. On the other hand, you see people you didn’t expect anything from who just rise to the occasion.”
Which are you? Which do you want to be?
When the shelter in place orders were instituted, I thought I was doing my part simply by staying home, staying out of the way of those on the front lines. But I’ve come to see that my responsibility is far greater.
I need to stop thinking that once there’s a cure for Covid, humanity’s in the clear. We can all just pick up where we left off. And I’m not talking about with the things we do or the places we go. I’m talking about who we are.
We can’t just come out of quarantine with a cute mask, we must emerge with more appreciation, awareness, and humility. Not just say we’ll never take vacations or going out to restaurants for granted again, but show by our actions and interactions that we really mean it.
Jimmy Cliff’s song “Sitting in Limbo” is a beautiful, poignant reminder of the torture and the triumph of being in this strange state. We are at the mercy of forces we cannot control, but we can take comfort in knowing this won’t last forever and that while we wait we are not powerless. We can think, dream, love, and improve.
If you’ve never heard the song, I’m pretty sure you have time to listen.