Daniel Thorson emerged on May 23, logged on to Twitter and asked his followers: 'Did I miss anything?'
How would you explain coronavirus to a younger version of yourself, beamed in from December 2019? How would you explain that, in just a few months, a novel virus has torn across the planet, killing more than 450,000 people and confining a third of the world’s population to their homes? A virus that has incapacitated senior members of the U.K. Government, including the Prime Minister? And would they even believe you?
It sounds like the sort of light-hearted hypothetical you might be asked at a (virtual) dinner party, but for Daniel Thorson it is not so ridiculous. The 33-year-old lives and works at a Buddhist monastic academy in Vermont, in north-eastern United States, and recently spent two-and-a-half months in a silent retreat, denied any news from the outside world. Emerging on May 23, he logged on to Twitter and asked his followers: “Did I miss anything?”
It is an experience that made Thorson, a keen philosopher, something of a stranger in his own land -— but also gave him remarkable insight into just how radically our lives have changed over a tiny period of time.
“The social distancing took a while to get,” he remembers of the early days after getting out. “I’m sure that when everybody was first learning to do it people were more forgiving, but we’re deep in now, and when I get it wrong, people are pretty forceful in their correction.
I'm back from 75 days in silence. Did I miss anything?— Daniel Thorson (@dthorson) May 23, 2020
“I have to really remember to put on masks and take masks with me when I go out.” Thorson, originally from a non-religious family in Syracuse, New York, wears a toga to show that he is in monastic training, and spends hours each day meditating. He began his period of solitude on March 10, just hours before the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Stock markets had dipped, and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte had just declared Italy’s “darkest hour.”
It was a worrying situation, particularly for Thorson, who had always been interested in the concept of “systems collapse” — when a well-organized society suddenly disintegrates. His podcast, Emerge, has explored this very topic.
But at that point, no deaths had been recorded in his part of New England, and day-to-day life was still perfectly normal — shops, restaurants and schools were open, and Thorson was able to visit family and friends.
Transatlantic flights were still operating and, in Britain, top government scientists were still talking about “herd immunity.” There were no signs of imminent lockdown.
“I had been following it for a while, back when it was the Wuhan virus. It was pretty early. I think most people weren’t really aware of it at the time I went in.”
As the virus was spreading rapidly around the world in late March, sending country after country into lockdown, Thorson was sitting in his wooden cabin, with no electricity or running water, taking “seated meditation” for nine hours each day, as well as long walks in the surrounding greenery, listening to the birds.
During his trips from the cabin to the academy’s main building, where he showered and ate, he shunned conversation and wore ear plugs so he did not overhear his colleagues. Still, in his silence, he noticed that the academy had implemented a strict new dishwashing regime to prevent contamination.
Copper had been coated over the doorknobs, and everybody seemed to be wearing face masks. He guessed it was something to do with coronavirus and tried not to think about it, but he could sense a “heightened anxiety.”
After 75 days of isolation, the other monks welcomed him back with a Native American ritual, buoying his spirits briefly — but he quickly wanted to know more about the global situation. “I follow world events pretty closely, so I went up to a friend and asked: ‘What happened with the coronavirus?’ They just looked at me and shook their head. I could tell what was communicated was: ‘It’s too much to even talk about. It’s such a big can of worms, I don’t want to say anything….’”
Driving away from the academy, Thorson stopped at a petrol station and noticed a family dressed in shorts — a sight of normality he found strangely reassuring. But then he ventured into a nearby supermarket, and noticed anxiety “radiating” off the customers. Having not learnt how to socially distance, Thorson attracted suspicious glances from his fellow shoppers when he got too close.
People at the grocery store seem more anxious than I remember.— Daniel Thorson (@dthorson) May 25, 2020
“[I was struck by] the weird norms that had emerged, like one-way aisles. Everybody was their own little social unit. Some couples were having a great time, some couples seemed like they were in hell, because I guess they had to quarantine together. And, of course, the masks were very striking. I’m sure that most people take them for granted at this point, but at that time it was a kind of sci-fi, pseudo-apocalyptic thing, like a movie.”
That night, some of his friends at the academy took him for a meal at a local Thai restaurant, but he was surprised to find a table blocking the entrance. Instead, they were told to sit outside, away from other customers — “a really weird experience.” Over tofu noodles, he grilled his friends on what he had missed.
He was “blown away” to learn that the United States now had an unemployment rate of almost 15 per cent (it was only four per cent when he had gone in), and that the British Prime Minister had been taken to intensive care.
Later, he phoned his mother — his first conversation with somebody outside the academy. “She lived on Zoom now, whereas I don’t know that she’d ever used Zoom before. She hadn’t touched a person in 75 days, or seen her grandkids. I was struck by that.”
What's the best sensemaking on COVID that you've seen in the last couple months? Beginning to wade in and it's pretty noisy.— Daniel Thorson (@dthorson) May 25, 2020
His mother told him that she had taken up regular yoga and reconnected over Zoom with many of her old university friends, to whom she had not spoken in years — striking, Thorson says, because before COVID her social life had revolved strongly around her community in upstate New York. “It’s amazing: her social network has expanded geographically. So many of the people I know have used the quarantine as an opportunity to try something new.”
Thorson, who now spends less time on his smartphone and tries to avoid bingeing on rolling news, is glad he missed what he calls the “anxiety hype cycle” that most of his friends went through in late March, when the world seemed to be falling apart.
That said, he is left with one surprising regret. “There is a part of me that wishes I could have been there to watch it, because I’ve been studying this possibility for years and to have missed it — I don’t want to say I feel sad, but it’s interesting, I would have liked to learn and see it. But on the whole, what I was doing was so much more valuable than that.
“I’m still catching up.”