READ| 17 May 2020

Text: Valentina Vapaux
Pictures: Kao Saephan

How should we choose to react to a global pandemic, lockdown orders, and a crashing economy? Baking loaves and loaves of banana bread, crushing endless home workouts, or binge-watching Netflix? It might be all or none of these. 

I’m at a techno party in an empty warehouse in Berlin, and it’s the spring of 2019. Between rusty stairwells and cheap strobe lights, I find myself thinking about an apocalypse. My obsession with German expressionist poetry dealing with topics such as decay, the end of the world, and human morbidity had inspired me to do so. I try to imagine what it would be like if the world would suddenly change. With messy blue hair hanging in my face, I write into my phone's notes, ‘We will be ready when the apocalypse arrives.’

One year later, I’m sitting at a gate at Newark Airport in New York. I’m watching President Trump's first speech on Covid-19. My face is tired, covered in stains from dirty tears, goodbyes that will last a lifetime, and a tremendously painful broken heart from finally discovering the freedom I had always longed for. 

In these moments of departure, I realized how wrong I was. Though never truly meant seriously, I was fascinated by my upper-middle-class boredom and naivety. Inspired by abstract art and poetry, I had longed for chaos and the end of the world as I knew it. For the mere purpose of entertainment and excitement. But then, change did arrive, and I wasn’t prepared.

The first few weeks of the pandemic felt truly apocalyptic. Countries with a tradition of priding themselves on their democratic liberty were not hesitating to issue stay-at-home orders that resembled past times of authoritarian states. Of course, these measures had the intention of protecting people's lives and the healthcare system, but the measures that democratic governments were taking was something that would have seemed impossible a few months ago.

Sometimes I felt like I was a prisoner in my own home. In a way, we were all nostalgically staring out the window onto fields or empty cities, thinking about past experiences when life felt vivid. Fascinated by how fast liberty can vanish, I find myself wondering: What does freedom in captivity mean?

Freedom and captivity. A pair of words that at first seem like an oxymoron, two concepts that oppose each other like antonyms. But behind this notion lies the question of how we can still be free when disease or other restrictions take away our freedom. 

In the western hemisphere, our generation in particular has never experienced captivity in such a drastic way. Still, humanity is certainly not new to the loss of freedom and the state of incarceration. The psychologist Viktor Frankl, who was the leading representative of the Third Viennese School of Psychology, survived years of imprisonment and torture in a German concentration camp in Auschwitz.

His book Man’s Search for Meaning explains that a strong sense of purpose in life gave him the will to live and was crucial to his survival. During his time in Auschwitz, Frankl observed that prisoners who were able to keep a sense of purpose were able to survive much longer than those who had lost their hope.

Now, of course, most of us are not experiencing such traumatic circumstances in the comfort of our own home. But we can, nevertheless, learn from Frankl and apply it to our smaller scale suffering. Stories from people who have survived situations worse than our own can be humbling, because they show us that our pain may not be as tragic as we experience it.

Most of all, Frankl’s conclusions can help us through our own state of captivity and help us find a way to coping with feelings of hopelessness and fatigue. Viktor Frankl writes, ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.’

He believes in the power of choosing how you deal with and adapt to situations where freedom is limited. Freedom in captivity, according to Frankl, means that while you may not be able to control external circumstances, you can always control your own reactions. We’re always able to choose how we approach captivity.

Ten years after Frankl's liberation, Jean-Paul Sartre, leader of a philosophical movement known as existentialism, wrote his magnum opus L'Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness). While Frankl's approach was mostly psychological, Sartre examined freedom and captivity from a philosophical point of view. Existentialism can be explained through its aphorism ‘existence precedes essence’.

Traditional religion, for example, believes that essence precedes existence: God creates human existence and gives each person their own ‘essence’ or personality. Sartre, though, claimed that humans existed before they chose their essence. Just like Frankl, he emphasized our ability to choose. To him, this was directly linked to a quite radical definition of freedom. Sartre believed that at every point in your life, you are able to control how you act and who you ultimately become.

But such great freedom and limitlessness comes with great responsibility. If all our reactions are our own choice, then we are ultimately responsible for all our actions. This definition leaves no room for excuses regarding our behavior. Neither God nor our upbringing or pre-existing psychological conditions can be the reason for how we live our lives. 

Back in October, I was free. I could walk through crowded plazas and dance to pounding beats. I could kiss strangers and embrace the ones I loved. But my head was clouded and heavy. An invisible thick curtain had wrapped itself around me. I was encapsulated in a dichotomy of emptiness and pain. Immersed in depression, the feeling of floating, not living, ruled my life. Back then, I felt like a prisoner, but I was free.

In particular, the topic of mental health raises questions about Sartre's philosophy. And during these times, those who were struggling before the pandemic are even more at risk. Mental illnesses such as depression, like the ones I was struggling with a year ago, create a capsule around the person experiencing them. Combined with the reality of a lockdown, this turns into a doubled state of captivity in one's mind, and in one's home — the loss of freedom, inside out.

But how should we choose to react to a global pandemic, lockdown orders, and a crashing economy? Baking loaves and loaves of banana bread, crushing endless home workouts, or binge-watching Netflix?

It might be all or none of these. For my part, I believe that a sense of accomplishment or productivity can be very beneficial for mental health. Luckily, I was in therapy long before the emergence of Covid-19. Nevertheless, around the time that everything was suddenly changing, I was struck by the return of the symptoms of a mild depression.

I believe that we must rethink the meaning of productivity in order to be free in quarantine and to be free in life after Covid-19. The notion of productivity is closely entwined with the basic principles of late capitalism. Productivity, for most us, means improving ourselves. Earning more money, becoming fitter, smarter, faster, better.

But how should we fast-forward when the world is on pause? Instead of turning ourselves into obsessive machines that are continually running updates, we should hit pause as well, at least for a moment, to ask ourselves, ‘What does freedom mean to us? And what is our own purpose?’