I was recently reading an article about the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He spent 8 years in the Gulag Penal System, and he noticed how he and others struggled to go back to ‘normal’ after having effectively become institutionalised.
It occurred to me that as we come out of 18 months of the pandemic, we face a similar, if less intense, need to find a way to re-connect with normal life.
Solzhenitsyn was an extraordinary man, a mathematician, a physicist, a philosopher, and a writer. He served with great distinction in the Russian Army in the Second World War.
He was a prominent dissident against the Stalin regime and spent 8 years in various gulags. In 1953 he was released and ‘exiled in perpetuity’ to Kazakhstan, a bleak place.
He struggled, along with other ex-prisoners to re-connect with normal life, some did not manage at all well. He noted, “As for some, coping with daily life, even buying a shirt, was an unnerving experience. They were overwhelmed by a kind of vertigo – it all felt ‘perversely refined,’ as they tried to live an ordinary everyday life.” Ex-prisoners would have deep misgivings about their place in the real world. And, as in the labour camps, or outside, a poor morale could be fatal.
Solzhenitsyn realised that the way to cope was to start living in the present moment. Raised as a Russian Orthodox Christian he would have known about this concept of being ‘in the moment’. He knew it was essential to maintain an equilibrium even for survival itself.
He realised that regrets about the past would only sap energy and drain any hope away. But he also found that looking too much into the future would not help either, for the future was unknowable and this would lead to anxiety and ultimately exhaustion. He learnt that the present was the only place to live.
I think that’s good advice for us too. For the last long months, we have experienced a dislocation, some more than others, and it will take time to relocate ourselves in the new landscape of our lives.
The Christian concept, of the ‘Sacrament of the Present Moment’ may point us in the direction of a letting go of the past and of the future, and to live as much in the present as we can.
It may be a helpful strategy for us all too.