Many centuries ago, there was another kind of social distancing. There were the plagues, of course, and the separations people sought from those who might spread contagion. And there were those who believed that social connections were in the way not of their physical health but of their spiritual health. These monks and nuns believed, like the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton, that “in hiding himself from the world,” a monk “becomes not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order.”
While there are fewer monks and nuns than there used to be, monastic communities continue in religious traditions around the world. So it comes as some surprise that both Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things and Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher who has written widely on religion, have lamented what Agamben calls the “bare life” thrust upon us by coronavirus restrictions. “Justice, beauty, and honor,” Reno argues, cannot be experienced when all that matters is “physical life.” Both know the importance of Christian monasticism, yet they oddly fail to connect it to our current moment. And in so doing, they make the same conflations as President Trump and a growing number of the Republican party: A life outside of a growing stock market is really no life at all.
Merton’s retreat from the economy was rooted in a “union with God,” something that might seem a bit far-fetched for those secular Americans stuck at home with a few remaining rolls of toilet paper and a Netflix account. Yet, for those 65 percent of Americans who are Christian, Merton’s story provides a powerful counterpoint to the idea that you need to leave the house to have a meaningful life. And you don’t even have to be Christian to appreciate what Merton was saying. At least Merton didn’t think so. As he got older, he was fascinated by overlaps in monasticism, mysticism, and contemplation, both within and across traditions, especially Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
One example of this overlap is how the ancient Stoics came to a similar insight to the Buddhist practice of non-attachment and the Christian commitment to indifference. Stoics like Marcus Aurelius believed you could lose everything and yet you could still live with meaning, dignity, and purpose. The good life must be both social and political (Aurelius was a Roman emperor), yet the capacity for virtue, which is also the means to happiness, is rooted in an ability to accept whatever life gives us and to strive to help each other wherever and however we end up. Even sheltering in place.
I write this after having put my seven-month-old daughter to sleep, and as I did so, thinking about this argument, I was struck by the simultaneous truth and ridiculousness of it. There is something life-affirming about holding a baby in your arms, something that convinces you this life, right here, right now, is as abundant as it gets, about as far from bare as you can imagine. This is the grace of the monastic impulse, and it is the poet’s grace as well: the sublime in a blade of wet grass, the eternal in the smell of brown butter. Babies make poets of us all.
Yet that poetry doesn’t last as long as I would like. She wakes up a few minutes later, and the crying stops my thoughts, or anything that might have resembled contemplation. The world interrupts. And I recognize my various privileges have made those interruptions quite minor. My partner and I have a spacious apartment, with unpolluted, safe walks. Our jobs are secure. Our food supply is fine. Our health is good, and if it’s not, we have access to a hospital and doctors that many do not. It’s easier to think about grace when we don’t have to think about evictions.
As far back as Aristotle, we’ve known that material inequality makes the good life easier to get. That recognition should call us to solidarity in any time, but especially today. Our fellow citizens deserve protection from eviction and foreclosure, cash to pay their bills and feed their families, and the reassurance their jobs aren’t going anywhere. And this recognition also leads us to an insight many contemplatives (including Merton) kept returning to: Time alone brings us deeper into politics, not further from it, but politics in a fuller sense than twitter spats or who might win next year.
Coming to recognize the quiet grace within ourselves helps us see the grace all around us, in animals and plants, in a warming planet and the people trying to help it. Agamben’s concept of “bare life” is a complicated one, but it is deeply intertwined with the idea of politics in the broadest sense and how the state can enervate us through its arbitrary power. He asserts that the most fundamental form of “bare life” is the concentration camp, a space where humans are fundamentally depoliticized and anything can be done to them. And he is certainly right to worry that governments might use these exceptional times to do all sorts of long-lasting damages to our rights and liberties.
Yet staying at home does not have to be a concentration camp; indeed, for many of us, it feels more than a little callous to even consider the comparison, not least because our reasons for social distancing might be the sort of solidarity “bare life” prevents. It can be more like monasticism, a subject that Agamben knows well. And monasticism, it is true, can be quietist and anti-political. So can stoicism. But Merton and Marcus Aurelius prove they don’t have to be. As my colleagues in the UCLA Sociology department have argued, our physical distancing does not have to be social.
When I taught high school English, I told my students that Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were two opposite ways to come at life, Whitman as the extrovert who found beauty outside, and Dickinson the introvert who found beauty within. I’ve come to learn since that both had lives a bit more complicated than this simple dualism, but I still think about Dickinson a lot while being stuck in my apartment for the past few weeks.
I’ve returned often to her poem, “There’s a certain slant of light,” perhaps for its creepy, despairing religiosity, perhaps for its intimations of a plague. There’s a politics in this poem—and in much of her work—that reveals something more complicated than the old story about a reclusive spinster. But more than the politics, I’m struck by her brilliant ability to pull so much meaning from a light beam. Of course, few of us have the insights of a great poet, or a devout nun. But we all have the same capacity for a life much more than bare, wherever we are, and however long we’re there.