It’s hard to remember what life was like before the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcohol-filled parties, packed restaurants, and walking around with our faces fully showing all seem like relics of a light, carefree age (for those who are responsible, at least). When we watch movies or documentaries, we can’t help but think, “That crowd isn’t social distancing or wearing masks.” We are also more isolated as individuals in a society than we’ve ever been before. There’s nothing crueler than having the opportunity of a lifetime yanked out from under you by an absurd and unthinkable Diabolus ex Machina. In my case, that was a quarter of my time in college at a point when I’d been ready to cut all ties to a home environment I despised, as well as days upon days of sleep and the basic ability to feel sane and secure.
I’ve made a fair share of friends among people stripped of the same opportunity, more than I expected. But never any I could see more of than text behind a screen, or at best a poorly lit, occasionally frozen face through my laptop. I wake up every day (or evening, rather) excited to check my phone, to see if anyone’s texting me or if one of these dating apps I’ve desperately signed up for have actually worked. Never can I think about actually seeing these people, asking them to go get some ice cream, having the sorts of unplanned, spontaneously emotional or funny moments you would have back when people could meet freely. No, my entire life is behind this dim little screen. Without it, I’d have no one.
I doubt I’m the only one who’s struggled to stay sane either. Anyone who’s talked to me for an extended amount of time, read any of my writing, or given me an empathetic shoulder to rest on knows that I am not mentally stable. Really, I’ve never been. But right now, as the world falls apart, tens of millions of people simply walk around as if nothing is happening, and millions more tell others to “deal with it” or “look on the bright side,” I feel like I’m being strangled. The endless amount of schoolwork I’ve had to do with zero reward and zero motivation, the countless hours I’ve spent in utter isolation without a soul beside me, the massive black rings under my restless, bloodshot eyes. All of these have left me feeling like a shell of the human being I was becoming, an angry, lifeless insomniac instead of the ambitious scholar and activist I dream of being. I’ve found myself talking to others (behind screens) who have similar feelings.
But I’ve found, just as I did when I was lonely child nobody paid attention to, when I made the earth-shattering choice of abandoning my traditional faith, when nearly two years ago I fell into complete despair, that being at one with my thoughts and questioning the world philosophically makes me feel more grounded and sane. It gives me the ability to know why I experience what I do. To communicate it as best I can as I look to others for help. To recognize what I’m feeling and where those feelings are leading. And finally, to know that my experience is valid and to know when I’m thinking in ways that are destructive. I ask myself every day why I’m here. What I should be doing. What the point of living in this world that hemorrhages disappointment is. And in the process, I not only become more aware of life’s complexities, but learn more about my own thoughts and the role I want to play.
A philosophical examination of the loneliness and disappointment this crisis has created would inevitably lead us to consider why we feel those things, and more broadly, how we conceptualize our place within the world and how that shapes the people we are. I won’t say I know the answers for myself, let alone for others, but I do think these questions are valuable tools to reorient ourselves, perhaps by capturing some of the chaotic emotional conflicts within us. And I’ve found that even in the darkest moments, a little bit of self-awareness helps.
I might ask myself, what makes me so important in the world that I let myself engage in self-pity? What right do I have to do it when so many other people are suffering from far worse things? Well, the framings of both of these questions are woefully inaccurate from a mental health standpoint. Depressed people aren’t at fault for their pain, nor is any “right” to misery relevant. But philosophically, you could think of depression in a more epistemological sense. For example, I might say that the reason I am qualified to feel more pain for myself than for others is because I’m not living someone else’s existence. I can’t access their emotions, their full contexts or mindsets. I don’t actually know anything about them apart from how they present themselves, what I see and how I evaluate it. My experience with myself is very different in that I am the thing that’s feeling. I know what the experience of my feelings and thoughts is precisely like, because I am the one having this experience. That doesn’t mean I can put everything into words. The doesn’t mean that if I tried to write an omnibus of every single little emotional, chemical, or mental interaction I could possibly have I would be able to. All it means is that I am the only one who knows how I feel within a mind and body locked behind nearly two decades of subjective context.
I might also ask myself what really defines a friendship? Can a person befriend someone who is only words behind a screen? Can they love someone in that situation? Should they? Why do we need friendships, and how do they add to our experience as existing (if only barely) entities? And I would answer that I think a person can have these relationships, and given no alternative, they should. There’s something that fundamentally defines the idea of being with other humans, of sharing an experience and building attachments to one another that supersedes whether we’re actually visible to each other or whether we’ve even met each other. Something about that text behind a screen flips a switch, lets us know, “this is another person.” They may exist within machines, but they are their own bundles emotions and experience and biology. And something about that draws us to each other and makes total loneliness feel a tiny bit less lonely. There’s something about drowning in the sea while holding someone else’s hand that makes it feel so much less empty.
This sort of thinking and the subjective consideration that would follow may seem psychological rather than philosophical. But philosophy isn’t something you can put into neat little boxes of “not-philosophical” and “philosophical.” It’s dynamic, voluminous, all-encompassing. It doesn’t have to be the ivory-tower morals of Immanuel Kant, or the utilitarian mathematics of Jeremy Bentham. Philosophy can be personal, self-involved, down-to-earth and situated within our experiences. It is the art of asking questions, and it does not restrain itself behind arbitrary criteria. It can allow you, as it has allowed me, to feel the full depths of pain while knowing more about why it’s there than you ever have in your life.
Too much has happened for some of us to heal. Too much hardship, too much death, too much isolation and misery and insecurity. We are living in a period where we are constantly reminded, whether by dreadful 3am virtual classes born out of time differences or by the ridiculous-looking cloths we strap to our faces every time we go outside, that everything is upside down, and our lives as we know them have been destroyed. But maybe with a little bit of thought, a little bit of honesty, a little bit of self-awareness and curiosity, we can find out what parts of us still remain, and build hills out of ashes.