Can I Love the Ones I’m With?

The Challenge of Being Quarantined into Community

I’m at home. It’s a spring afternoon in Oklahoma, with the redbuds in the woods making a contrast with the rest of the trees still brooding in their winter skeletons. Outside, my two brothers and my father work together to rebuild a fence around the garden, and my mother and sister-in-law are inside chatting and sewing. Things are familiar, quiet, and secure. Just a few weeks ago, trade in the scene with the skyline of a great city, zooming cars, public transportation, incessant hurry and night life, and brewing underneath it all a single emotion—anxiety. The coronavirus sent myself and millions of others into domestic retreat this weekend, and I was fortunate enough to make it back into the two-acre plot of land I grew up in, while countless others have been waking up with nothing but their phones and the attending news alerts and social media madness to keep the company throughout the day. They may be alone.

Living just a couple brief months in Chicago made me realize the strain it can be to connect with others. People are generally absorbed in their technologies in coffee shops, and no one makes eye contact on the sidewalk. (That one is understandable, but a “hi how are you” once in a while would be nice!) These urban environments represent the realized visions of success, enjoyment, and individual achievement. Logan Square, the hipster, urban professional precinct of Chicago and where I sojourned for a couple months after graduating college, is full of these types of starry-eyed folks chasing after the latest trends and rejecting anything that even smells of tradition. That would include family and community. Look around that area and you’ll see hardly any children or elderly people. The pace is fast, the air tinged with the smell of marijuana, and everywhere there’s this energy of youth and professionality and unstoppable zeal. And truthfully, it’s a fun place to be. Lots of great spots and a lot of wonderful people. It’s a stop on the ladder of resume lines and exciting experiences. It’s a locale the world changers and visionaries might want to stew in. But what about now? Locked away and quarantined, the visions and dreams put on hold? What is there to fall back on in times of crisis and uncertainty?

For a 22-year-old growing up in one of the most individualistic, anti-authoritarian, and progressive periods of history, returning to one’s roots in rural Oklahoma might sound like a severe interruption of “normal life” if not an outright injustice. I was on track with developing a career, getting that horizon-line of desire and romantic bliss in the eye. And then plop! I’m back in the room I’ve been sleeping in since I was ten. College students who have had their year cut short will be tempted to feel something very similar. My year disrupted, my plans turned upside down, my future in jeopardy. The young professional locked in the apartment might be pouting a similar mantra too. And so much of the outcry is merited. People losing their jobs, getting ill, realizing mortality. But if you’re like me and find yourself around a family you’re starting to realize you’ve largely neglected for half your life, maybe this is a time to be cured of the romanticism of the young professional and see what’s really important.

I am one of those who are often convinced they lack something essential for their happiness and in turn long for that partner, career, or perfect life on the horizon to swoop in and save them from all their woes. As an idealist, I often have trouble accepting the present life and moments I’ve been given.

While the romantics of the earth might suffer this ill to a pathological degree, there’s something basically human about the dilemma of discontent. Whatever is in front of us, good and bad, we tend to get dissatisfied and want a different corncob to chew. The American Dream is one manifestation of this movement. Getting what I “want,” grazing in the greener grass, is the key to prosperity. The problem with idealism of this sort which is so rampant in the West’s way of life is that it’s based on the abstract illusions of a perfect future, but we never get there. Long before our fast-paced, consumer culture, Fyodor Dostoevsky saw this condition for what it was: a radical disorientation of the soul and its affections. He writes this in his legendary work The Brothers Karamazov:

The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.

A friend of mine put it like this over dinner last fall: “I realized that I couldn’t love [my girlfriend] until I was able to love my own mother and sister. Not until then.”

There are painful and yet liberating times in life when, by God’s grace, we realize the only things we’ve really been loving are ourselves and our own dreams. Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis like the coronavirus and a trip home to family to realize it. And community too can become its own illusory vision, as Bonhoeffer warned us in a seminal work on the topic. Our own versions of it turn into another abstraction, and we fail to attend to the present, the place where “time touches eternity.” Anything else is a vision, a legend of success, a “delight to the eyes and good for wisdom” as Eve supposed of the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. 

The divorce rate is already up in China, and who knows how much domestic fatigue a quarantine in America will produce. Being faced with relational proximity can be challenging for those of us who forgot how small-souled we really are, but therein lies the gift: by learning to love what’s real and not what we imagine, we can grow toward maturity, toward the contentment and tranquility of a good character, a compassionate heart, and a benevolent will.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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