Molly Young: Insanity can keep you sane during Covid-19 lockdown

Shaking up some of your normal habits during lockdown can have its benefits. Picture: Daria Shevtsova via Pexels.
Shaking up some of your normal habits during lockdown can have its benefits. Picture: Daria Shevtsova via Pexels.

If you can’t live normally, why not find little harebrained ways to warp reality? writes Molly Young

My quarantine has been ... fine. I was able to get out of the city; I don’t have the virus; I’ve lost some work, but not all of it; and just under 17% of my immediate family members have fallen seriously ill. I’ve made out beautifully, and I feel terribly unhappy: a pair of conditions that are tough to either reconcile or deny.

Like characters in an Edgar Allan Poe story, every person I know is suddenly confined to a small space and forced to meditate on existence, death and his or her own satanic impulses.

The physical manifestations of my own dread have included insomnia, a bumper crop of grey hairs and an absence of self-control around any form of alcohol or drug. At some point my ribs became countable. I daydream about which elected officials most deserve to get Covid-19.

Being an inessential worker in every sense of the word, there has been no obvious way for me to channel my bad feelings into civically productive activities. If I can’t be productive, I have three choices: Do nothing, do destructive things or do neutral things.

The adaptations began during my third week of quarantine. On the internet I discovered a “natural lifestyle coach” named Tony Riddle. Riddle looks like a Viking warlord and does stuff like try to run 900 miles across the entire length of Britain barefoot.

He has sinuous muscles and four children and does not believe in normal furniture, especially chairs, which he considers unnatural and expendable. His home contains none.

Instead, he recommends “ground living”: banishing furniture in favour squatting and kneeling. This, according to him, helps nourish a person’s ankles, knees and hips, as well as “rewilding” her feet.

I watched a video of Riddle, serene and barefoot, as he moved through 10 positions designed to help support my “ancestral movement system.” Was he a maniac? A genius? Only one way to find out.

I spent a day working from the floor, squatting before and around my computer as though it were a campfire, with glutes aflame and feet unshod. “This is how a monkey sees the world,” I thought, dreamily. It was the calmest I’d felt in days.

If lacking something as fundamental as furniture did not impair my life, perhaps the same could be true of recently banned fundamentals, like social contact or walking outdoors without a muzzle. When people talk about fasting, this is what they talk about: the surge of power that arises from realising you don’t need what you thought you did.

And so other behaviour modifications followed, all of them minor acts of norm-shedding. I wandered around naked and stayed up all night. I paced thousands of laps around the kitchen table. I slept in places that were not my bed.

I ate a meal without using my hands or any utensils, like a dog, just to see what it was like. (Sloppy, as I expected.)

I coaxed a group of wild turkeys out of the woods with a trail of sunflower seeds that I placed in a circle, which they obediently traced. I tried to attract other birds by sitting quietly on the porch cloaked in seeds but had to go back inside after being menaced by a squirrel.

Molly Young: Insanity can keep you sane during Covid-19 lockdown
Discovering strange new ways in lockdown can keep you level during Covid-19.

None of these “hobbies” were fascinating or impressive — and they’re even less so when I type them out — but they were placating, free and legal. I couldn’t stop finding harebrained new ways to warp reality. I spent hours sitting on the carpet against a wall, doing nothing except considering.

I considered investigating the stain under the boiler. I considered making banana bread, cleaning the gutters. The word “consider” implies, correctly, that these thoughts at no point turned into actions. During one morning of considering I felt my head entering the wall, or sort of dipping in and out of it.

This went on for a minute before the sensation faded and was replaced with a moment of alarm at the banality of the hallucination, which was like being on the world’s lamest drug: Instead of experiencing ego death, I momentarily penetrated a sheet of drywall. What was the life-altering lesson in that? “Sleep more,” maybe.

Some years ago a friend lived with a community called the Bruderhof. The Bruderhof is a constellation of settlements numbering about 3,000 people, spread over four continents, with roots in Anabaptism — a 16th-century radical offshoot of Protestantism that believes in a separation of church and state and adult baptism.

Members are pacifists who renounce private property, live simply, dress modestly and — to judge by the official Bruderhof website — have a distinctive sense of humor. (Among the questions in the site’s FAQ section: “Sorry, what’s Anabaptism?” and “Do you ever have fun at the Bruderhof?”) “Amish-adjacent” is probably the easiest way to describe them, but they’re allowed to have smartphones, drive cars and upload (utterly delightful!) YouTube videos.

At some point in my friend’s residence, a pregnant couple went to an outside hospital to give birth. The baby was stillborn. Instead of the planned celebration, a course of mourning began.

The day after the couple returned, a busload of men and women from a neighbouring settlement showed up to take over daily operations. For 10 days this fleet of visitors cooked, cleaned and performed whatever tasks needed doing while the home community paused.

“It felt like something from Lord of the Rings,” my friend told me. “All of a sudden this ancillary battalion shows up over the hill, and you feel like you might win the battle.”

I can’t claim to understand the exact meaning of this protocol, but it makes sense on its face. A grieving period is marked by altering outer reality to mimic the state of the bereaved’s inner world: absolute inertia, total cessation of routine. The ratification might not be curative, but at least it would feel cosmically sensical.

The philosophical underpinning of this process is something the Bruderhof calls gelassenheit, , the meaning of which has been extensively discussed on the internet. (The Anabaptist blogging community is surprisingly robust.)

Yielding, waiting, submitting to God, abandoning the self, surrendering pride, subordinating the individual to the community — this is the English word cloud around gelassenheit. One blogger described it as “an antidote to the sheer pompous weariness of the world”.

There is an argument that behaving unusually is a rational way to assimilate an altered reality, especially if the alteration is a rotten one.

When you pre-emptively dismiss whatever rules of living are within your control, like using furniture or wearing clothes, you’re injecting yourself with a tolerable portion of insanity, which works like a vaccine.

I’m childless, but I’ve watched friends who are isolating with children slip immediately into a less-extreme version of the same state: losing their grip, abandoning routines, witnessing their selves mutate.

If you believe that identity is behaviour — that you are how you act, not what you think or how you feel — then you understand that adjectives like “normal” or “functional” require constant tending.

If you change your conduct, you can change your life: how simple, and how daunting. All it took for me to become unrecognizable was to start acting like a different person. In theory, this should work in reverse too.

When this is all over, I can return to chairs and forks and sleep. In the meantime, there are plenty of individuals who haven’t spiralled, either because they don’t have the luxury or do have a stronger constitution. In these people I find an inspiring path back to normalcy.

Next to the house where I’m staying is a road that cuts through a marsh to a bunch of dumpsters, and I spend hours shuffling between the house and the dumpsters. It would be more pleasant to walk literally anywhere else, but I need to be within sprinting distance of home in case anxiety takes a stomach-related expression.

It doesn’t help the marsh smells powerfully of sulphur. It’s like a Gary Larson sketch of hell.

During one of my customary shuffles between home and dumpsters I looked up and saw, on the embankment opposite the fetid marsh, a guy in work boots with his hands on his hips, gazing down at me.

I lurched to a halt, embarrassed to be caught scurrying back and forth like a creepy little rodent. He lifted a hand and waved.

  • The New York Times

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