Quarantine and peaceful happiness
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has surprised the global population , changing our lives forever. People are terrified. The necessity to stay at home to avoid as much as we can any type of social activity, and this unusual situation of fear and panic, drove my attention to certain thoughts upon which I interrogated myself several times over the past years. Thoughts that are, now more than ever, strong and linked to today's news, giving the effects that this virus is having on everyday life, economy and information.
These thoughts refer mainly on the sense of life and death, to the condition of misery that I've always associated to elderly and to the fear of diseases that touches every human being. The entire world seems to have slowed down its race to progress, almost stopping in a bubble of restless waiting of new developments. Most of the people, especially those who are lonely or sick, are forced to stay isolated, with bad consequences on their mental and emotional state. Although there are exceptions, I've noticed an overall sense of sadness by everyone because of this unexpected halt of the normal stream of modern life.
It seems that people, used to run away from deep thoughts to find transient distractions, are fearing something deeper than a virus: I think people fear the fact that because of this virus we have to stop, to reflect on how we occupy our time every day, now that we can't fill it with the usual activities. This forces us to think of how it's easy to forget our fragility, to postpone our fear of being fragile, fallible, destined to death.
I think that those who are facing peacefully this quarantine and isolation, and the necessity to find something to do in the daytime, are those who are used to wonder about things, those who don't seem to depend from transitional pleasures, as they are always serene. It seems like these people have a gift, an in-depth view of things. It seems like they hold a truth unclear to all the others, that secret for their inner peace.
I've already spent many times in the past seeking the way to be always serene in front of our worst thoughts, and happy even in periods of social or personal crisis. Despite my young age, I've already experienced the grief generated by my mental traps during depression; despite my age, I've always had the tendency to think a lot, to stand still and observe attentively the soul of things, people's gestures and elusive glances. Today I've seen a sign, an answer in my mind.
Something that finally gave a sense to the bond I believe exists between happiness, determination, knowledge, sense of life and death. Today, by reading the last pages of collection of essays by Daisaku Ikeda(1), the International Soka Gakkai president, and by noticing the solutions taken to face the virus emergency, I've seized what is, for me, the sense of life, the key for serenity and for present, future, eternal happiness.
How to get free from the “brakes” that impede us to be happy
To explain what I’ve learnt, I want to use a quote from Tolstoy’s masterpiece «The death of Ivan Ilyich» that I’ve read in one of Ikeda essays wrote in 1980. The novella tells the story of Ivan, who has a normal life, ordinary and peaceful, a normal job, a normal family and who occupies his time with those usual pleasures people fill their time with. Until one day he discovers he has an unknown and terminal disease.
In the fight against this illness he realizes that his previous life, the pleasures and distraction of everyday life, that seemed to have filled his life, suddenly seem to be empty and insignificant.
As Ikeda said, «Just a couple of hours before his death he had a revelation. The “truth” came to his mind. The fear of death disappeared, and he understood one thing. Tolstoy ends his masterpiece this way:
“It’s finished!” someone said over him.
He heard those words and repeated them in his soul.
“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more”.
He drew in air, stopped at mid-breath, stretched out, and died. »
(Ikeda, D. (1980), in Wider, S. 2019, p. 118, Italian edition, the translation is mine).
This quote, that back to high school was quite unclear for me, now it’s clearer than ever. Ivan, at the end, feels relief because death is finally gone, even though he is, in fact, physically dying. His comfort is caused by the understanding that is the spiritual death that is finished, his empty life, and everything that in life caused him a permanent and acute suffering. As in, all the temporary pleasures that satiate our soul shortly, because of which human beings experience an inner emptiness when they finish and when we realize that they never really satisfy us. Unluckily, Ivan Ilyich understand this truth just at the end of his physical life, without having the possibility to put into practice this great inner change he realizes at the end of his life. Tolstoy, trough is character’s experience, warns us: if we settle for temporary distractions without actively research what in life can deeply appease us, we will never be able to live. Only once we understand this, only once we put an end to our spiritual death, we can really be alive: only then will be possible to activate to build an overflowing and rewarding life.
How to realize a full and happy life
In another essay, Ikeda notices that it’s a natural desire for human beings to feel and be necessary, and that’s because this desire is the proof that we are important for others. This is true in every moment of a man’s life, without excluding retirement (2). I’d like to combine this though with another one: old people who feel to be useful, appreciated and still able to give value to their existence don’t shut down: their remain active and alive in body and mind.
All those who have activities to do, either in their private lives and in the community, as volunteering or through social relations, therefore those who spend their time also for others, feel more satisfied. In the essay, Ikeda writes: «Nichiren (the 13th century monk who reformed the Buddhist teachings, editor’s note) affirm: “if we light a fire for the others, our way will be enlightened accordingly”. […] A person genuinely happy is someone who made someone else happy» (Ikeda, D. 1981, in Wider, S. 2019, pp. 122-123, the translation is mine).
From my perspective, life is fully realized only when we open our mind, when we do everything is in our hands to go over everyday distractions to ask ourselves concrete questions and then find answers to those question thanks to knowledge, dialogue and by experiencing the world.
First of all, we should allow ourselves some mental and temporal space to contemplate our questions, and their answers. Instead of thinking “I don’t have the time to deal with all this”, minimizing our deep thoughts and putting them at the end of the “to do” list, we should take care of our ability of being also spiritual beings.
Secondly, we should activate for the greater good, in order to make other people happy, because I really think that life is fulfilled thanks to two actions: in one hand, the satisfaction of our desires, achievable with ongoing commitment, and in the other hand the amount of sincere attention we give to those around us.
However, a thing should be clear: to activate is necessary. It’s not enough to dream our happiness and then complain of how much idealized it is. It’s necessary to constantly work for it, with thoughts and actions, without settle for anything less. It’s useless to complain of futile distractions that leave us dissatisfied, if then we don’t do anything to escape from a meaningless life. That’s why is essential to give genuine value to our existence, a value that is consistent at both a personal and a social level.
Today I’ve understood many things regarding the sense of life, happiness and satisfaction, the importance of death for life, because she teaches us to make it useful and joyful, and of life for death, because without a meaningful life a serene death would be impossible.
Finally, I’d like to end these first observations with another quote from a text Ikeda wrote in 1981(3), that reports a dialogue between Yoshida Shoin, a Confucianist scholar, and his disciple. The dialogue is on the existing relationship between life and death: «[Shinsaku]asked him: “Which is the best place where a determined man could die?” Shoin gave a remarkable answer: “Death is not something to love or hate. When someone has walked the journey of life until the very end achieving the peace of mind, is in that moment that he spontaneously finds himself in the right place to die” ». (Ikeda, D. 1981, in Wider, S. 2019, pp. 126-127, the translation is mine).
This dialogue once more points out that the way we conduct our life determines how happy we can be while we live and at the moment of dying.
How to peacefully deal with retirement and quarantine.
Ikeda (4) asks to his readers: «Do you look at retirement as a moment of decline that culminate with death?» (the translation is mine). I must admit, I do. Or, at least, I did, until today. I’ve always feared old age as a period when my activities would have stopped, a period that would have meant to me melancholy and endless waiting for the end. In my imagination, retirement could have been comforted solely by the memories of the golden times, that I would have celebrated as a distraction from the unavoidable truth that constantly reminds us that we can’t escape death.
I feared dying sadly, having a final sensation of inexplicable dissatisfaction: inexplicable as dissatisfaction shouldn’t be the last sensation to feel after a fulfilled life. But now, I see the problem. I can’t expect to die happily if I live a cheerful life only until I get old, and since then I stop my active living taking refuge in memories. Memories are a good thing, and it’s right to have them. However, maybe, too many memories might become dangerous if they substitute the construction of new experiences, that generate new memories.
To age shouldn’t mean to stop taking actions and wait that the rest of our lives passes by. I don’t want to see retirement as the nightfall of my best years: it should be a new period of my life, when I will continue, maybe in different ways, to cultivate the sources of my happiness, that currently are knowledge and taking useful steps for myself and the others. Only in this way I can tell that I’ve lived a meaningful life, until the end.
For what concerns disease, it’s a human condition is normal to be afraid of. Diseases make us physically weak, make us feel vulnerable, and give us concerns. Nevertheless, I believe that thinking too much to illnesses and constantly wishing to never get sick, at a point where we get convinced that after all nothing bad will happen us, is bad. In fact, this brings the illness condition to an idealized level, where we “romanticize” it as something undoubtedly and absolutely frightful but also highly improbable. We relocate this human condition in another reality, situated far away from our everyday lives.
Thus, when it strikes us, because eventually it comes to all us, no one excluded, we feel defenceless and terrified in front of her. With all those reassurances that we tell ourselves or that scientific discoveries transmit us, and with the easiness with which we forget concerns hiding them behind everyday life curtains, we estrange illness. As anticipated, it always seems that diseases are situated in another reality, where they do not concern us, where they always grieve someone else, some other family, never us, never me.
We tend to forget that illness is a part of the life, it’s a moment or an aspect of it. That’s why it’s so frightful: we have become incapable to accept it. Ikeda says (5): « If we focus too much on health without taking care of the other aspects of life, we find ourselves wishing us any problem, but not even this ensures a satisfying life» (the translation is mine). What Ikeda, and I as well, try to say is that in some ways we will all be visited by illness. It’s useless, maybe even dangerous for our mental wellbeing, be persuaded of the contrary. Instead, it’s convenient to expect it, without thinking of it too much, and, when it comes, it’s convenient to accept it as a normal part of our life, as an occasion of changing, self-analysis and learning.
The virus issue we are fighting today is terrifying people because an illness that until today it was easy to imagine far from us, in other countries and in other people’s lives , suddenly seems to worm her way everywhere in the world and makes herself present in everyone’s life.
But I believe that the time we have at our disposal in this quarantine can helps us reflect at what point is our existence and how can we take consistent actions to change them remarkably, in the search of our peacefulness. Because feeling happy and fulfilled comes is the result of taking actions and not settle for an average existence. Find the right focus to gaze and balance our interiority will allow us to stay calm in front of uncertainties and to see them as an opportunity for growth, because we will have a new inner force, a power that will teach us how to see what seems scaring from a wider perspective.
(1) Wider, S., Chowdhury, A. K., Carter, L.E. (curators) (2017) Hope is a Decision, Soka Gakkai 2017; trad. it. La speranza è una scelta, Milano, Esperia Edizioni, 2019.
(2) Ikeda, D. (1981) Una società che invecchia, in Wider, S., Chowdhury, A. K., Carter, L.E. (curators) Hope is a Decision, Soka Gakkai 2017; trad. it. La speranza è una scelta, Milano, Esperia Edizioni, 2019.
(3)Ikeda, D. (1981) In ogni istante di ogni giorno, in Wider, S., Chowdhury, A. K., Carter, L.E. (curators) Hope is a Decision, Soka Gakkai 2017; trad. it. La speranza è una scelta, Milano, Esperia Edizioni, 2019.
(4) Wider, S., Chowdhury, A. K., Carter, L.E. (curators) (2017) Hope is a Decision, Soka Gakkai 2017; trad. it. La speranza è una scelta, Milano, Esperia Edizioni, 2019, p. 123.
(5) Wider, S., Chowdhury, A. K., Carter, L.E. (curators) (2017) Hope is a Decision, Soka Gakkai 2017; trad. it. La speranza è una scelta, Mil