A philosophy of confined Youth

2 days ago, France re-opened the cinemas, bars and restaurants, after more than 8 months of closure. That meant freedom, for the youth : being able to go out, to socialize again. But now that the summer makes us see another end of the tunnel, I asked myself: what will we do with all our memories? What will we do with this year of online learning, anxiety, monotonous social life and psychological struggles? Do we chose to forget, or to build upon?

I chose to try to remember. Did you already experience the physical feeling of remembering? The purity and strength of a moment which, when you picture it, lying in your bed at night, takes you by the guts and makes you trip. A special journey, one of the journeys we are still allowed to make; a journey without risk.

I experienced that, one night. I just wanted to sleep, and I was pretty tiresome. I don’t know what circumstances led up to that esoteric mid-wake state, but I was in a wandering mood. Sitting in my bed, in the dark, I picked up a text written during the confinement period in April 2020. I read it, without any goal in mind. It was the story of one of my days. I could read:

“Monday, 8am, on an umpteenth day of this quarantine: I forgot the date.

The preparation of coffee slows down, my alarm clock slows down, and it is all the day that slows down with it. When you’re so slow, you have time to think. To think about what you may have missed so far, the wasted opportunities, the ones taken, the desires, the absurdity of some of these. Anyway. Finished is the coffee, and then comes the ball of screens that invites us to dance, for another day leaning on the back of our chair.”

And in that room, I remembered. My back on the chair. The weight of a body, and the feeling of the object against my back. A soft and faded backrest. The smell of coffee in the morning. And the smell that it no longer had. That smell of vitality, dynamism, efficiency. I was going to remain static, on my chair, thinking, coffee in hand. A coffee with no smell.

And there began the physical sensations. In that room, months after. I could almost see my memories, feel them on me. I had that same ball of anxiety in my stomach, that same constant uncertainty. I felt the same duality of emotions, optimism and despair.

“All the misfortune of men comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to rest in a room” said Blaise Pascal. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t know how to be alone and inactive, in my case, but rather that I felt guilty about it, I thought. Like many of us, I associated, and still do, success with undertaking, sustained activity, dynamism, and the thousand things that one ticks on the to-do list. Between me and myself, it’s a dangerous business. This vision of success can lead me to over-activity, and bad failure. Not that a failure is necessarily bad; that’s quite the opposite. But the ones created by impatience or stupidity are.

As I read these lines again, I thought that all this time within my reach was probably frightening, in April. I thought of it as a time to think, to go back in time, or to imagine the future. And how many times have I hurt myself for thinking too much, for wanting to imagine too much. In hindsight, I would have liked to reassure my April self with Pascal’s theory. According to him, I was deprived of my entertainment, this form of “dodging our thoughts” that we all practice.

To entertain oneself, according to its Latin etymology divertere, means “to turn away”. It means going out for a drink with a friend, or to see a movie at the theater. It is discussing the weather with the neighbor on the landing, or listening to the argument of the couple next to me at the restaurant. It’s also going to the University, listening to a professor, or having a business meeting. For the philosopher, we are weak and fallible, and it’s best not to think about it. So we entertain ourselves. Based on this principle, everything I was deprived of was in fact a decoy. And yet I missed it.

I would have liked to reassure myself with Pascal’s thought, which pointed out our dual condition, our sadness when we are alone resulting from the impossibility of not thinking about a fundamental sadness, our weaknesses and our limits. In April, we were facing it, and in a rather brutal way. Relatives died, proving to us, at the age of 20, that nothing is eternal. Our daily lives were turned upside down, our education challenged. More than it already was, the economic situation has brought its share of worries, for the future young workers that we are. “Nothing is so unbearable for mankind as to be in full rest, without passions, without business, without entertainment, without application”, what a prophecy.

I continued reading, in this dark room full of thoughts.

“Writing that I do not miss my family, that I did not see since Christmas, would be lying. Telling that I do not miss my friends, my boyfriend, or little daily joys such as a cornetto al pistacchio in a bar on my way to the metro, would not be accurate. But I am discovering other little joys, new kinds of pleasure, what the anthropologist Françoise Héritier would have called “The Salt of Life”: the usually invisible, fugitive layers of our existence which give to it all its meaning. Beyond our public and social being, there are our inner and intimate moments that constitute the depth of our personality, and our reason for living. Taking a hot shower after an intense indoor sport session, seeing your tulip seed growing day after day in a corner of the kitchen, enjoying the silence as you enjoy your favorite air, see a smile in grumpy time on your housemate’s face, walk your dog and take fresh air on a sunny sunday morning, watch the rain flowing on the windows.”

So, how would I have advised my April self? I would have told her to review her definitions of entertainment. Inside a room, you can do so many things, for yourself and for others. And indeed, I ended up doing things. Things I never thought I would do. I learned to play the guitar, to take care of a small garden on a balcony, to sing in front of someone, to live, eat, sleep and work in the same room. From those days, sitting in the dark, months later, I still hold on to that state of mind. I try, as I did months ago, to eliminate from my mind the ideas of the things I can no longer do. The radius of my abilities has shrunk, and sometimes so has my motivation. But I am learning, day after day, to be content with these new confined and bittersweet realities. There are so many things to do, to think, to explore, even enclosed in a room. On this reassuring thought, I continued reading.

“Every Friday at 7pm is the appetizer with my family: my grandparents, my mum, and my step-father. It cheers up my grandma, which is physically suffering, during this quarantine. During the week, she calls me, complaining about the length of this lockdown, regretting not having been able to celebrate her 60th marriage anniversary on April 18th, missing her grandchildren and the sunday’s cards games with her friends. When comes Friday, at 7pm, the fumes of alcohol and reunion make her blush with pleasure, and we can glimpse her laughs at my grandfather’s stupid jokes. There, she grabs some life again. She has a right to be sad, to be desperate to have her years of rest after a long career as a farmer stolen from her. She has worked so hard, she has put money aside, and now she would like to get some peace, to rest, to travel a little, to see her family. She could be selfish and think of all the reasons that allow her to live her life as she pleases, but she stays on her couch, wisely, waiting for Saturday night at 7 o’clock. My grandmother is brave, as we all are.”

And there I thought:
“I was a porcupine in winter.”

Do not think I’m weird. Crazy guys philosophizing in their rooms did that before me. Indeed, an animal fable narrated in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), Arthur Schopenhauer depicts the dilemma of porcupines in winter. When they are isolated, far away from each other, these small creatures are cold. The irony comes when they want to naturally warm themselves up. Coming closer to take advantage of the warmth of their fellows, they hurt each other with their prickles. No cold, no warm: porcupines cannot get close, but suffer this distance.

I couldn’t see anyone or I would hurt them. So I chose to spend the confinement alone with my roommate, not to return to my country, to protect my family. That’s what we all did in our own way. Protecting who we loved. And even who we didn’t love, but for whom we had respect: others. Strangers, otherness. We don’t know everyone in this country, but we stopped living together, in the name of what is called respect for life, and humanity. We were all porcupines in winter, very likely.

“When I think about the injustice my grandmother is experiencing, my heart breaks. Not for the violence of the emotion, but for its dual nature. I am both relieved that I am not alone in my isolation, and angry that she is suffering. These are pretty much the emotions that follow me everywhere. The feeling of not being totally alone, in my forced physical solitude, and the injustice felt deep down in my bones, who would like to have a little more exercise to do than take out the garbage or have a 5 minutes walk with a mask. Perhaps it is on this thought, that I should concentrate: the reassuring thought that we are not alone, and that there are worse things. Finding a seed where all you see is a wasteland of despair.”

For a long time, in March and April, I tried to conform to an ideal of morality, to follow the information, to think about the questions that everyone was asking, to help in my own way. I looked for meaning, through philosophy. I wanted to understand the feelings, decisions and thoughts that animated me, and to map out a path of action. To be safe.

I have turned these emotions and these little moments of emptiness into a few pages of writing, and perhaps that is what will save me in the end; this feeling of being able to turn the apparent desert into an oasis, of being able to find fruit on what apparently is destructive to all of us, and of being happier for it.

Now that this confined youth starts to see another end of the tunnel, the question will be: what will we do of all our memories? How do we build ourselves on this messy year we’ve experienced? Do we forget? Do we accept? Do we cherish this period as any other memory of our life of young adult, or do we hate it for the pain we endured?

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