The coronavirus is not the only bad infection going around. It has almost certainly aggravated another. This second, not secondary, infection has a parallel in economics. It is called inflation. Inflation, which is good for debtors and bad for creditors, reduces the purchasing power of money and destroys value. In the same way, much of our language nowadays—shaped as it is by the media’s alarmism on just about every topic—inflates and so loses its value, its power to render thought public.
This parallel pandemic predates the assault of an insidious virus from China but is particularly evident in the endless news stories about it. Everyone knows the format. After a few bullet points of actually new “news” follow reams of so-called interpretation, flatteringly promoted as “in-depth” and aiming to explain to us dullards what everything means, who’s to blame for it, and so forth. Abundance has not been our friend here. In olden times, less was probably more. The most senior among us can still remember getting the news if not primarily from newspapers then over the radio in the form of news bulletins (not to be confused with programs): five minutes of information, once a day, read without emotion or comment. Dull stuff no doubt, but we had life to get on with, supper to see to, children to bed down.
For present purposes, this danger surfaces in the chatter about that reality so new and constraining for many of us: staying at home. “Stay,” in the sense of “abide,” is intransitive. If sick, one stays home from school or the office. One is a stay-at-home mom. “We’re staying home tonight” can mean anything from some nice romantic time with your spouse to stories with the children or economizing by giving up that dinner and a movie. The execrable “staycation” means staying on the ranch this summer in lieu of hitting the open road. The stay-at-home orders under which we now labor mean sit tight. Abide.
Another word, however, now infiltrates the descriptions of our current domestic confinement. This is the past participle of “stick,” which is “stuck.” “Stuck” introduces an emotive, inflationary element. To be stuck is no good thing. “Are you stuck at home?” chirps an insistently helpful female voice on a morning radio show. “Then here’s ten cookie recipes just for you, even if you’ve never cooked anything more than toast and burned that!” “Things to do while you’re stuck at home” must be among the most frequently appearing phrases on the internet. Whether the suggestions are trivial or noble doesn’t matter. They are offered as resorts, things we turn to because, all of a sudden, we must. They are not what we would choose. And the reason is that we just can’t get out. We’re stuck.
On how all-wrong is the word “stuck” when used in connection with the home, G. K. Chesterton had a helpful, iconoclastic thought or two. Though he had specifically in mind England’s “moderately poor” when he wrote “The Wildness of Domesticity” a century ago (published in What’s Wrong with the World, 1910), he was onto something timeless and hardly class-specific. He blamed wealth for the treacherous notion that domesticity was dull and confining while adventure and variety beckoned only on the “outside.” Because the wealthy dictate “the tone of nearly all ‘advanced’ and ‘progressive’ thought, we have almost forgotten what a home really means to the overwhelming millions of mankind.” Home, Chesterton thought, was the only place on earth “where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge a whim.” There is no telling how many saw it that way then, but I suspect fewer do now.
To the contrary, it is “out there” in the world—that field of wonder and opportunity awaiting our creative touch—where we are bid to pursue our ambition (today, our “passion”), to find stimulation and inspiration. Since most of us are thwarted in ambition and insatiable in matters of stimulation, this may not be the best idea. Less romantically, Chesterton saw in the outer world not stimulation but rather the regimentation and forced obedience that cast a pall over the real world of work. Back then, the most powerful image of such would have been something with which virtually no one among today’s literati has any personal acquaintance: the industrial assembly line or just plain factory work. While in America and the West generally we manufacture much less than in the past, that world of disciplined hourly work (or salaried work after a pre-set “work plan” submitted to a supervisor) is going strong. An example just walked through my garden: the young FedEx delivery man with his handheld reader and tracking technology. His superiors know exactly where he is, all his workday long.
But after work? Though he advised against trying it at the Savoy, Chesterton said picnicking on the floor held the answer. Picnicking is a metaphor for freedom. It is fun, is seldom countenanced at the office, and brings joy. For most of humanity, home is “the only place of liberty,” even of occasional anarchy, that a wearisome world allows. So, reality reverses convention. “For a plain, hard-working man the home is not the one tame place in the world of adventure. It is the one wild place in the world of rules and set tasks.”
As Chesterton saw it, home is not a place where one could ever conceivably be stuck, as millions lament their predicament today. Rather, one might want to stay there longer. Of course, certain basic conditions apply: Is a particular home capacious or stifling, filled with love or abusive? Assuming even the most favorable fundamentals, however, one senses many homes today may be handicapped going into COVID confinement and ill-prepared for the “togetherness” that pestilence forces upon them. Chesterton would not have been surprised. We like to be in control, a desire manifest in scheduling—that instrumental parceling-out of time to help us, we believe, get things done. Advice-givers admonish us to keep to a schedule at all costs. We crave to stay busy, and schedule answers our perpetual question: “What’s next on the program?” In a culture that tolerates just about everything except risk, the least tolerable risk of all is having nothing (or not knowing what) to do.
Those habituated to something through experience often are the ones best at it. They have at least an opening advantage over even the cleverest newcomers. It is an impression only and hardly scientific, but I sense something of this when observing, from a sanctioned social distance, friends’ children now confined to the company of mom and dad, brothers and sisters, dogs and cats. I have no interest to declare here, my own offspring being long since grown and gone, but those children who are now at home because the schools are closed, and who complain most quickly of missing out on the “socialization” that schools for better or worse provide (distance-learning comes up empty in this department), are the ones who will also say they are stuck at home. They can seem edgy, irritable, dull. Not uniformly of course, for we are speaking here in degrees. For those who have been home-schooled, nothing much has changed. They are biddable, settled, bright. They have schedules, too, but schedules that have become habits. They know the difference between staying at home and being stuck there and in whose power that distinction lies.
Whether your family is together at home because you always have been, or because you now must be, be bold, take a risk, and join Chesterton in a picnic on the floor.