Kitchener-Waterloo

Suspension of usual life an opportunity for reflection: philosophers

With regular life on hold for the foreseeable future, philosophy professors say the forced slowdown caused by COVID-19 could be an opportunity for people to reflect on how they want to live their lives.

Focus on what's achievable, says one. Consider how you formerly spent time, says another

A man sits on a bench alone, practising social distancing. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

With regular life on hold for the foreseeable future, a philosophy professor says the forced slowdown caused by COVID-19 could be an opportunity for people to reflect on how they want to live their lives.

 "There's this kind of stillness or suspension of everyday activity that is that has fallen upon us now," said Byron Williston, a professor of philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University.

"And I think that's an opportunity for people to raise these questions about their life projects and what really matters to them."

Williston recommends paying attention to the newfound moments of quiet and trying to find the beauty in them. He also suggests people put extra effort into strengthening relationships with others – especially with those who might be isolated.  

Most of all, he said it's worth it to step back and think clearly about what we spent time on before the pandemic struck, and whether that time was worthwhile.

"Maybe that will result in some new directions in your life," said Williston, who added that similar reflection should take place at a societal level.

Williston, who studies the ethics and philosophy of climate change, said our current experience of COVID-19 could lead to different conversations about how to better prepare for catastrophes.

"Maybe we can … reconstruct our societies and our politics and so on in a way that makes us more resilient and flexible … so that they don't introduce such a shock into the system," he said.

Finding meaning

University of Waterloo philosophy professor Brian Orend says life amid the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the fact that parts of life will always be outside an individual's control.

The worst-case scenario would be to let that lack of control allow you to collapse in fear, or deny the gravity of the situation. Better then to try out a new skill — like playing guitar or making a TikTok video — something small but that lends itself well to making progress, he said.

"This is an opportunity again to focus on the small-scale, achievable things," he said.

For more reading about questions of life and meaning, both professors recommend reading the online works of Existentialist philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre.

Williston said reading philosophy isn't just for academics — it's a way of thinking clearly about big, important questions.

"They to me are just the tonic you need in times like this," said Williston.

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