😷 Musings about self-love in the time of COVID

Time alone might be just what we need during these pressing times

Niki Birkner
6 min readOct 7, 2021

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One of my favorite novels of all times is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.

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This week, I’ve been reflecting on this passage from his novel (I read it in Spanish and translated it myself, so it may not be as precise):

“Captain, the boy is worried and very uncomfortable due to the quarantine that the port imposed on us.

- What’s bothering you, boy? Don’t have enough food? Not getting enough sleep?

- It’s not that, Captain. I can’t bear not being able to disembark and hug my family.

- And if they let you off the ship and your loved ones become contaminated, would you bear the guilt of infecting someone who cannot bear the disease?

- I would never forgive myself, but, for me they invented this plague.

- It may be, but what if it wasn’t invented?

- I understand what you mean, but I feel deprived of my freedom, Captain.

- Exactly, I quarantined 7 years ago.

- And what did they deprive you of?

- I had to wait more than 20 days on the ship. There were times when I longed to get to the port and enjoy the spring on land.

There was an epidemic. In Porto Abril, we were forbidden to go down. The first days were hard and I felt like you, but soon I began to face those impositions, using logic.

I knew that after 21 days of the same behavior a habit is created, and then instead of complaining I thought about creating habits that would replace the wrong ones.

I started to behave differently from others.

I started with food. I made it a point to eat half the usual amount. Then I began to select the most digestible foods, so as not to overload the body. I began to nourish myself with foods that, by historical tradition, had kept man healthy.

The next step was to purify unhealthy mental patterns and to have higher and more noble thoughts.

I made it a habit to read at least one page every day of something I didn’t know.

I began to exercise on the deck of the ship.

An old Hindu man had told me years ago that you can improve your body by holding your breath. I took a deep breath every morning. I think my lungs had never reached such capacity and strength.

The afternoon was the hour of prayer, the moment to thank a Divine Entity, for not having given me, as a destiny, serious deprivation throughout my life.

The Hindu had also advised me to have the habit of imagining that the light entered me and made me stronger. He told me that it could also work for loved ones who were far away, so I integrated this practice into my daily routine on the boat as well.

Instead of thinking about everything I couldn’t do, I was thinking about what I would do once I got to the mainland. Visualizing the scenes of each day, I lived them intensely and enjoyed the wait. Waiting serves to sublimate desire and make it more powerful.

I deprived myself of bottles of rum and other delicacies. I deprived myself of playing cards, of sleeping a lot, of practicing leisure, of thinking only of what they were depriving me.

- How did it end, Captain?

- I acquired all those new habits. They let me get off the boat much later than expected.

-Did they deprive you of Spring, then?

- Yes, that year they deprived me of spring and many other things, but still I flourished… I carried Spring inside of me and no one can take that away.”

Reflection

COVID has undeniably brought us a lot of negatives — deaths, separation from loved ones, isolation — and it has deprived us of things we love to do — connect with people face to face, travel, go to the movies, etc. At the same time, there’s not a person I have met who has not come out of COVID stronger, with better habits, or changed in one way or another.

The pandemic forced all of us to stay inside and spend time with ourselves; to reflect and self-introspect. We realized that what’s external is not always fulfilling… that all the time we spent outside — in parties, hanging out with friends, traveling — we were actually trying to quiet down our inner voice.

That happened to me. For a long time in my life, I would use social activities, school and work to keep myself busy, keep myself from hearing what I (my body, mind and soul) had to say. I was actually forced to spend time alone with myself even before the pandemic. In April 2019 I fractured my sacrum from running, and was bed-ridden for almost an entire year. I spent 300+ days in crutches, with limited mobility, spending the majority of that time in bed (because even sitting down in a chair hurt a lot). And yes, there were distractions… TV shows, movies, friends visiting, homework… but there’s only so much I could do from bed before I was forced to listen to my thoughts.

My introspection during that time taught me two things:

  • First, our minds (and selves) are programmed to race, but you have the power to change that. Our minds are most of the times running in auto-pilot, and we don’t even realize it but we’re jumping from one thought to another (or in neuroscience terms, the electrical signal is transferring from one neuron to the next) quicker than we can imagine. In fact, it becomes quite impossible to stop and keep your attention in one thing. (Side note: When I was in school, I took a class about learning to pay attention to our subconscious, and one of our homework assignments was to write down everything that came to mind using your stream of consciousness. A key part of the exercise is to not process your thoughts and just write. I was fascinated to learn the number of distinct topics that go through my head in just a matter of minutes.) But you can do very simple things to stop your mind from wandering, from breathing to meditation, to focusing on one thing at a time.
  • Second, it is only until we stop our minds from racing that we truly begin having deep, genuine, authentic conversations with ourselves, and this is an essential part of being human. Alone time or “self-care” can oftentimes be confounded with laziness. This is far from the truth — “self-care” requires you to have clear goals in mind. E.g., I want to eat healthier, I want to be more fit, I want to quiet my mind, I want to sleep better, I want to be more relaxed. What you do to get to that goal may be relaxing and enjoyable (or it may not be), but you’re not being lazy because you’re tracking towards a goal.

Before we jump into our old patterns of giving in to distractions in a world where there are many, let’s take some time to think about what being alone gave to us, what we learned, and how we can apply it to our lives moving forward. If COVID-19 was good at all, it was because it made us stop and listen, and as a result become better advocates for ourselves. What do you think?

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