The invisible gift

Someone should write a typology of confinement.

We are more reflexive than ever, more sensitive than ever, and less likely to put up with any form of detention than ever.

I’ll be honest, when I read or hear how people are getting depressed from staying at home, I can’t help thinking: we wouldn’t last a minute under torture, in a war-zone, labour camp or hiding from the enemy. But then I am reminded we’re all shaped by the culture we live in, and we shouldn’t expect 80 years of peacetime and prosperity to make Rambos and Dr Robert Nevilles of all of us.

What we can do is imagine and remember what it must have been like for others in the past (and many around the world at the moment) to experience involuntary confinement. So let’s imagine and remember, in no particular order:

  • those unable to flee epidemics of plague, cholera or other diseases which kill almost instantly, anybody, but have to stay in and wait it out, especially in times and cultures which don’t have the means to deal with the situation. The Italians in 1348 and then the rest of Europe by 1351, those in Samuel Pepys’ and Daniel Defoe’s London, in Lieber Augustin‘s Vienna, in 1855 Yunnan, China, down to times and places within reach, the list goes on.
  • those finding themselves under siege, running out of food, water and supplies, locked in a cruel game of attrition with the enemy.
  • those unjustly thrown in jail and being tortured for confession, ever approaching breaking point but not always crossing it. Allowed to stay in your cell is always better than going out.
  • those imprisoned in labour camps, from west to east, north to south, and back, forcing themselves to survive when everything around them shouts ‘just die already!’ Another game of attrition, but this time Death is a gentleman sitting on the other side of the chessboard, like in Ingmar’s Seventh Seal. You can’t play your pawns forever.
  • those gone in hiding, the millions of Jews of yesterday and others like them, keeping their breath under the planks, in attics, in barns and stables, to see who is quieter, the silence or themselves.

The list goes on to the point that we might ask, if freedom is so precious, why do we take it for granted so easily? If captivity is so well-distributed across time and space, and if we find so hard to breathe the air between our walls, and if we raise our fist in the air and shout – I protest, then why are we often so complacent?


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