The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen has written about the importance of a cohesive story of the self. “To be a self”, he says, “is to be able to give an account of a self through a narrative of who one has been, who one will become and who one is now”. In other words, our sense of selfhood requires us to be able to gather into a unity our past, present and future, or rather, I suggest, a ‘healthy’ selfhood requires this. I’ve been thinking about this creation of a unity of the self through the use of narrative quite a bit recently, but in the last few days, in relation to the current coronavirus emergency, it seems particularly relevant. To what extent has this emergency, and the strange situation we find ourselves in, disrupted our personal narrative? To what extent has this disruption of a personal narrative interfered with our sense of unity? And, perhaps more importantly, how does this make us feel?
Speaking personally, whilst I am obviously still able to provide a narrative account of the relationship between ‘who I have been’ and ‘who I am now’, the sense of unity I feel between these two tenses seems somewhat fractured, or, to paraphrase Hamlet, my “time is out of joint”. Just a few weeks ago my diary was nearly full. I was often attending several meetings a day, I was engaging with many people each day, and (perhaps most significantly) I was going to the gym most days. Now my diary has been stripped of meetings, and the only people I’m really engaging with are those who I am ‘staying at home’ with. Whilst this could change in the coming weeks as virtual meetings are gradually arranged, the sudden difference between now and then seems strange, perhaps even unsettling. And most unsettling of all – the enforced change to my exercise regime. Whilst walking my partner’s dog is most enjoyable – it doesn’t provide the same ‘buzz’ as a good workout in the gym!
And the relationship between ‘who I am now’ and ‘who I will become’ is equally ‘out of joint’. At the most extreme level, whilst I have no underlying health conditions and therefore should not expect a serious threat to my future existence should I contract the virus, it’s difficult to entirely dismiss the increase in threat level. But even at a less dramatic level my timeline is somewhat fractured. All short term plans have been cancelled. And whilst it’s still reasonable to make loose medium term plans (i.e. plans not tied to specific dates and places), because of the vagueness of these plans they fail to provide the same sense of direction that planning for the future usually does. I feel like a bird who has lost a wing and can only fly in circles. Alright, I’m not sure this last analogy works – I’m not sure that a single winged bird can fly at all – but you get the image! My point is simply that without something tangible to work towards we / I lose momentum. My fear is stagnation.
So the question is: How do I overcome this disruption to my time line? How do I avoid stagnating in a pool of psychological / social / physical inactivity? Well, my suspicion is that just being conscious of the need for a narrative, and actively talking or writing about it, actually restores it to some degree; that talking or writing about the past, present and future puts ‘my time back into joint’. The danger, in contradiction to the advice of ‘mindfulness’ or many meditation manuals, is to focus too much on the here and now. Concentrating too much on the present literally fractures my personal sense of unity; I surrender my sense of becoming to being trapped in the present. So thank you for listening. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t exist, it doesn’t matter if no one out there reads this. Just sitting down and writing this restores my sense of time, unifies my sense of self. I feel better already.