Four walls and a ceiling. For most of us, this has been the environment oppressively
containing us for the past year. Enforced quarantines, curfews, and the closure of some of our
most beloved restaurants and bars have made this enclosure even more suffocating, and it’s
with a spark of sweet nostalgia that we turn our mind’s eye to those days when roaming the
streets without a mask was so natural and frequent. One can hardly blame us for yearning
more freedom, but what if this pandemic is not a curse, but an opportunity? What if the Covid
virus is a fleeting chance at greatness you may never enjoy once more?
During the early 19th century, a kind-hearted if somewhat naive young Frenchman was
unjustly accused of treason and thrown into Château d’If, a terrible island fortress off the
coast of Marseille. Or at least, that’s what Alexandre Dumas tells us in his timeless novel The
Count of MonteCristo. Hopelessly left to the mercy of sewage rats and an impenetrable
darkness for years, Edmond Dantes (for that is the name of our hero) finds in that old
recondite prison a mysterious yet wise old man, who thoroughly instructs him on the arts of
Politics, Economics, Philosophy, Law, and a variety of other subjects that contain the wisdom
of our ages. When he finally finds a way out of the island, Edmond emerges from the waters
a renewed man: one who would take the European world by storm and become a legendary
figure in our literature.
Why the sudden book summary? Because you, dear reader, are Edmond Dantes. It is true: we
are more than ever bound to the limits of our own rooms, but they are not cages if we treat
them like opportunities. We are imprisoned in our own Châteaus, but what we decide to do in
them is up to us, and the people who come out of them may be very different from the ones
that came in.
After all, one scarcely needs more than four walls and himself to transcend into new levels of
development, as we can learn from Henry David Thoreau. In 1845, Thoreau abandoned
everything to move into a cabin roughly 3 x 4 meters in size in the middle of the woods.
Practically isolated and with little more than his books, thoughts and actions, he worked on
himself deeply, mastering skills with tools he’d never used before, pondering on life’s
meaning, and building a good life with just what his hands could manage. Through this
intense period of self-renewal, he became the man who shortly thereafter famously wrote his
masterpiece “On Civil Disobedience”, which would come to influence the life of Martin
Luther King Jr. himself.
Perhaps this is our chance to “live deliberately”, as our cabin-dweller once eloquently put it.
Like Thoreau and Edmond Dantes, we can choose to seize the opportunities that our forceful
confinement has granted us. Never before have we had so much time for ourselves, nor the
expectation to stay at home and do with our time as we wish. Learning a new subject,
developing new skills with an online course, or even giving ourselves the time to reflect on
our lives and plan what directions it will take us in are all within our reach, and have never
been easier to undertake. After all, it is easy to be distracted by the buzzing life around us:
crowded marketplaces, busy streets, university studies, nightly plans to go drinking…these are
all good for our happiness and sense of normalcy, but their silence impresses on us how much
we can get carried away by life and never stop to think and work on ourselves. In his
“Meditations”, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote that “A man may any hour he pleases
retire into himself; and nowhere will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own
soul […] Allow yourself continually this retirement, and refresh and renew yourself”. The
noise around us can be deafening at times, and although we will all rejoice together the day
we can party and celebrate life freely once again, for just a few more months we have the
opportunity to exploit the silence.
You too, dear reader, can come out of this harrowing pandemic better than ever. Reclusion is
no obstacle for those who can learn to thrive in it, and the stage is set for you to focus so
fiercely on yourself that, by the time we obtain a Covid vaccine and come back out into the
world, your friends and family will marvel at the flourished individual you’ve become.