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Yesterday, I took a long walk through the historical center of Rome—my first walk in 68 days.
I started at my apartment building near Piazzo Navona and continued along the Tiber River to the Castel Sant’Angelo Bridge, ending my trek in Vatican Square.
To be outside after isolating in my apartment since March 9th—the day Italy imposed a stay-at-home mandate—should have felt fantastic. Instead, it was eerie and haunting. It was like a city resurfacing after a silent war.
Usually, the area is thronged with people, mainly tourists holding their distinguishing badges and following a flag-carrying guide. Yesterday I saw no more than four souls: a young mother with her child, a man on a bicycle, and a delivery boy on a vespa zipping by.
This was not the Rome I’d come to know since moving here five years ago, nor was it the Rome that I—born and raised in Northern Italy—knew as an adult traveling to its ancient, gorgeous parts. Gone were the deafening honks of horns, the shouts of vendors hawking cheap souvenirs, the gawking of seagulls (really, they belong much closer to the sea).
With all the shops and restaurants still closed, the buildings stood out in stark relief. I had the time and space to look at them, truly look at them—these architectural wonders that have witnessed centuries of scarcity and abundance, upheaval and calm. And yet they, too, had an uncanny air.
I scurried past, mask and gloves in place, careful to respect the required distance (even from the few I saw), darting furtive looks left and right. Then, exhausted, I sat on a bench in Vatican Square and let it all seep in—what we have been through, and where we may be headed.
Rome is expected to reopen half of its businesses on Monday. “Yay,” some say, while others murmur, “My God, what has happened?”
Italian bureaucracy notwithstanding, Italy has suffered in more ways than one. In addition to our record number of cases (228,006 and 32,486 deaths as of writing this), we have—like many countries—thousands of people without work. Many have no financial help from the government. Funding was supposed to arrive by the end of March, and then by the end of April. Now, who knows?
The psychological repercussions of a whole country of people locked inside their homes for more than two months are only now starting to emerge.
Many argue that this period has taught us to embrace stillness and mindfulness. They say that thanks to the pandemic, nature has regained its rightful place on Earth. Others assert that God has finally shown us his anger at our egotism and excess. Others still claim that animals have finally been able to live free of human ignorance and cruelty.
I believe pretty much of all of it. What I believe most of all is that this period has brought us closer to the two most elemental human emotions: fear and love.
Fear of survival; love for the life we have, as difficult as it may have felt during the peak of the worldwide panic.
Fear of dying from loneliness; love for those who helped us manage the ordeal from near and far.
Fear that we would lose someone we hold dear; love for reconnecting with people we haven’t been in touch with in years.
Fear of not being able to enjoy the feel of warm sand against our backs ever again; love for the memories of having done so.
Fear of the existential crises that keep us up through the night; love for the dawn of a new morning, our health intact.
Fear of irrelevance; love for the small things that have surfaced, as if by a miracle, while passing the hours in our homes. The list is endless.
What we lost and might have lost, what we’ve gained, and—what I held onto into the gaping quiet of Vatican Square—the possibilities that glimmer ahead.
As I made my way back home through the hushed streets, I resolved to place my focus on this last part. It was up to me to see Rome either as a site that had gone through the trenches or a metropolis that had, at last, some time to breathe. It was also up to me to see myself as either a victim or a victor.
My feeling is that in the days and months and years ahead, we can choose fear or we can choose love, as all other emotions are corollary to these two.
We can choose to pick up our old fears right where we left them. To recommence the tireless journey to earn, spend, and earn, or we can love the simple, authentic, resourceful life we have found while sheltering-in-place.
We can choose to fear the uncertain future, or we can love the newfound resilience we’ve discovered.
We can choose to fear the emotions that have arisen during the pandemic—from terror to anger to anxiety—or we can love our ability to do something as pure and easy as picking up the phone to hear the voice of someone we love.
We can choose to fear others, or we can love our neighbors and look out for them.
We can choose to fear for our lives, or, precautions aside, we can love the time that we have been given.
We have been made more fragile by this era, and this is not altogether a bad thing. By coming so near such primal emotions, we have also come to know, firsthand, what Viktor Frankl meant when he said,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I am choosing not to forget this time. I am choosing to remember the preciousness of seeing things with fresh, more grateful eyes, whether it’s St. Peter’s Basilica or the way my cat stretches in the afternoon light.
I am choosing to be kinder to myself and to everyone in my life. To let go of past quarrels and live squarely in the only time we really have: now.
I am choosing to donate to worthy causes rather than letting my money trickle away on futile things. I am choosing to be mindful (yes, mindful) of every day that goes by and can’t be returned.
In the end, I choose love.