“Dear friend and fellow prisoner,” a friend’s message to me today began, “let’s celebrate…”
What? His birthday. Online, in a chat room, as he explains.
What has changed in my life in recent weeks, I have recently been asked.
Everything. To put it bluntly. I’m now getting emails calling me a fellow prisoner.
I thought I was free.
My friend, to make this clear right away, has not committed any crime, has not been convicted of any crime and is therefore not serving any sentence in a state prison.
Nevertheless, a few sentences later in his mail the term “imprisonment” appears. Again as if I was part of it.
The Aztec goddess “Coatlicue” (“The One with the Snake Skirt”): She embodies, it is said, the ambivalence between intimacy and autonomy. This can also be seen in the context of society as a whole.
It cannot be overlooked now: certain freedoms that were once taken for granted, are suddenly curtailed. Suppose there was a need for me to buy new jeans – difficult these days. The relevant shops are closed. Sure, I would still get some pants if I needed them. Probably none that I like, though. At my favourite café the doors are barricaded. Not even coffee to go. Kreuzberg in an artificial coma. An unfamiliar picture.
Since gatherings of more than two people are prohibited in Berlin, I only meet friends individually. At least that intensifies the conversation. I had to cancel seminars. For a visit to my practice you now need a good reason. Many things must now be solved by telephone.
Hardly anything still works as before. The present seems so new, you’d think it had just been invented.
I then called my friend to speak as a fellow prisoner about his and my imprisonment.
“Been out for a long time today”, he explains and reports on an extended walk. Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. he had walked from Kreuzberg to the eastern outskirts of Berlin. “Walked fast, got far. Wonderful in the sun. I saw my city with new eyes.”
I hear joy in his voice and I notice, “On the loose, if I understand you correctly.”
I know people who take social distancing very seriously. For example, a young couple from Spain lives in the house next door. They haven’t left their shared apartment for about three weeks. Letters and parcels as well as food deliveries have to remain outside the apartment door for 24 hours as a quarantine measure. They communicate with neighbours by calling through the closed door. Only when the hallway is empty do they move the deliveries in.
The real prison these days is fear. Am I imprisoned by fear? I would deny it. I think it’s likely that I will be infected with the new virus in the near future. I am not afraid of that. I am more concerned about the loss of individual freedom of movement and the dismantling of democratic rights. We will soon know how justified this concern is.
As uncomfortable as social distancing may seem. I have no serious problem with it. In fact, suddenly people I know only by sight greet me from afar. And as they greet, they smile. In the past, they almost ran over me, stomped past me without a greeting, without looking at me, and they didn’t smile either.
The (almost) standstill in the mechanics of the city creates a whole new, unusual freedom. Sounds probably strange, maybe also not very empathetic, because people suffer from the current viral consequences.
But while things are currently getting tight in some areas, for example in your own home, when the ceiling slowly falls on your head, new rooms are opening up at the same time. Even if they are thought spaces.
What do I want? What do I need? What do I enjoy? What do I love? What frightens me? What gives me courage? What gives me joy? How can I find fulfilment?
The slowing down of the world almost automatically generates a concentration on essential questions. The fog of distraction lifts. Answers become visible.
I too wandered through the city today. Explorations in the new space of silence. In some faces I believed to read findings.
What does life mean to me?, I thought.
Is happiness standing at the foot of a mountain asking, “Shall I come up to you?
The mountain answers: Stay where you are! I’m coming down to you!
Even if nobody can say exactly what life actually is – I feel we have every reason to kneel before it.
Yours – Otmar Jenner
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