Historian's 12-step guide to stay sane during pandemic

A historian's 12-step guide to staying sane during the Covid-19 pandemic

Survey data from the United States, China and other countries point to a pandemic of depression, anxiety and stress

Representative image/Credit: iStock images

By Niall Ferguson

Maybe you stayed safe in the plague year. Most of us have. But did you stay sane?  A growing body of research shows that the damage to our health caused by Covid-19 went far beyond the disease itself. In addition to multiple physiological conditions that have claimed lives because people eschewed medical care they would normally have sought, a great many of us have suffered psychologically — some from fear of infection, some from protracted incarceration with their nearest and dearest, many from the enforced isolation that does not come naturally to our species. Survey data from the United States, China and other countries point to a pandemic of depression, anxiety and stress.

I’ve had the good fortune to avoid both physical and mental illness in 2020. As a repressed misanthrope — who for many years was forced by circumstances to be much more gregarious than I really am — I have positively relished nine months in one place with a social circle confined to my wife, my two youngest children, and a handful of local friends. (I cannot speak for the other inhabitants of my bubble.)

As the year nears its end — and with the plot twist of a new and more contagious U.K. variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as if to reconcile the Europeans to Brexit — I feel duty bound to share some tips for maintaining mental health. In honor of the process formulated in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, here are my twelve steps to staying sane (or at least getting no more insane) in a pandemic:    

Step One: Drink tea, not booze. I began 2020 with my first ever trip to Taiwan, where I was cured of making tea like a Brit, i.e., chucking a teabag, boiling water and some milk in a mug. Sitting cross-legged in the Shi Yang Shan Fang tea house, which perches on the side of Yangming Mountain to the north of Taipei, on a night of torrential rain, I experienced my first gong fu tea ceremony. A young man conducted the ceremony, which involves multiple pots and cups, all made of delicate, unglazed clay. “Are you a tea master?” I asked him, somewhat crassly. “No,” he replied serenely. “I am the servant of the tea.”

Ever since that evening, I have served tea this way three times a day, beginning with Taiwanese gaoshan (high mountain) tea in the morning, followed by Wazuka Yuki Oolong Cha at lunchtime, and concluding with Japanese sencha (green tea) in the afternoon—all ordered from the wonderful Sazen Tea. More than anything else I have done this year, the tea ceremony has kept me sane in the solitude of my study.

Step Two: Read Walter Scott (ideally with your mother). I had been thoroughly put off the novels of Scott as a schoolboy by adults who dismissed him as boring and stuffy. They lied. By some strange telepathic process, my mother and I—separated by nearly five thousand miles— decided to set aside prejudice and simultaneously begin reading “Waverly” (1814), the glorious, gripping tale of an ingenuous young Englishman who gets mixed up in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. As we progressed, at the rate of roughly one novel every three weeks, we found Scott as gifted a writer as Dickens, but funnier and shrewder. There are unexpected anticipations of Wilkie Collins and R.L. Stevenson in his darker characters — for example, the magnificent madwoman Meg Merrilies in “Guy Mannering” (1815) who recurs as Madge Wildfire in “The Heart of Midlothian” (1818), or the diabolical, dastardly Rashleigh Osbaldistone in “Rob Roy” (1817).

Reading Scott in tandem provided my mother and me with a desperately needed topic of conversation other than the pandemic. Our weekly calls became literary seminars rather than lamentation sessions. By this route of printed pages, each of us was able to revisit our native Scotland in our imaginations and to understand, for the first time, how much that country used to be Scottland — for it was Scott, more than anyone, who made its emergence from Afghan-like misery into Enlightenment dynamism both intelligible and irresistible to the Victorians.

Step Three: Have Proust read to you. On at least four previous occasions, I have tried and failed to get through the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. The solution was to listen to “Swann’s Way,” in the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, read exquisitely for Audible by John Rowe. If you have ever struggled with the ineffably sensitive Marcel, as I once did, then this is the way. For me, the breakthrough came with Swann’s all-consuming infatuation with the unsuitable but enthralling Odette and his descent into green-eyed jealousy.

Step Four: Listen to Bruckner. This was also the perfect year to immerse yourself in the work of a composer you had previously failed to appreciate. I chose the self-effacing Austrian genius Anton Bruckner, whose Symphony No. 4 in E Flat Major, “Romantic,” provided exhilaration and exaltation — both in short supply in the world at large. Other plague-year discoveries have included Mendelssohn’s “Lieder ohne Worte,” Schubert’s exquisite Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894, and, as I wanted to hear music from the time of the Black Death, the plangent Messe de Nostre Dame of Guillaume de Machaut.

Step Five: Practice a musical instrument. Since I took up playing the double bass at the age of 18, I have learned two important life-lessons. First, ensemble playing is very good for the mind and the soul, though not necessarily for the liver. Second, being mediocre is fine — you really don’t need to strive for perfection in everything you do (just in one thing). The jazz band of which I have been the mediocre member since we played at Oxford back in the 1980s, A Night in Tunisia,  has a tradition of performing together twice a year. The plague put a stop to that this year and our experiments with online collaboration risibly failed. (You cannot jam on Zoom.) The solution was to try to practice in new ways — not easy to sustain through the long days of internal exile, but the payoff will come when the band strikes up again next year. I may rise above mediocrity.

Step Six: Watch “Doctor Who” with your children or grandchildren. I more or less gave up watching television at around the same time I took up bass-playing. There is one exception to this rule: “Doctor Who,” without a doubt the greatest television series of them all, which predates me by a year, having begun in 1963. The revival of “The Doctor” in 2005 was the single best thing the BBC has ever done. With my son Thomas, who turns nine this week, I’ve been catching up with 15 years of the series’ exceptional science fiction — which magically combines time travel, terrifying aliens and British irony — though we still cannot decide who was the best Doctor: David Tennant or Matt Smith? Or was it actually Tom Baker?

Step Seven: Step. Do not fail to go for a walk every day, regardless of the weather. I write these words after an hour in a fully-fledged blizzard. A walk is infinitely preferable to any gym. If no one will come with you, take Proust.

Step Eight: Improve your curry making. If you haven’t been cooking this year, shame on you. I recommend applying some turmeric, cumin, red chile and coriander seeds to some of that leftover turkey.

Step Nine: Dress like an Oxford don, every weekday. Back in the spring, the beard, T-shirt and sweatpants combo was not conducive to the production of great thoughts. And yet I found it hard to take seriously the people who donned suits and ties to broadcast from their bedrooms. After months of slovenliness, I hit on the solution. I purchased a Fair Isle sleeveless sweater and dug out some maroon corduroy trousers, once part of the costume of an Oxford professor. This restored self-discipline and enabled me to finish writing a book. (I couldn’t quite bring myself to go full Tolkien by buying a pipe, but I was sorely tempted.)

Step Ten: Disable notifications on Twitter. It occurred to me with a flash of insight that I don’t in the least care what the people I don’t follow on Twitter think, otherwise I would follow them. “Would you let all these other people into your garden?” I asked my wife one day. “If not, why would you let them inside your head?” Goodbye, snark!

Step Eleven: Do not watch sports. Just don’t. To me, soccer and rugby without fans is about exciting a spectacle as two dozen men playing blind man’s buff. When we watch sport on television, we are imagining ourselves in the crowd, which is the real source of the adrenaline surge — not the flight of the ball from foot to goal. Without the ebb and flow of singing, cheering and booing, there’s just no thrill.   

Step Twelve: OK, drink booze, too. But only after 6 p.m., otherwise you’ll end up like Agnes in Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain” (without a doubt the best book published this year). Tea’s all very well during the day, but I couldn’t have retained my sanity after dark without the following liquids: Bent Nail IPA, a delicious beer brewed by Red Lodge Ales; the Veneto winemaker Inama’s smooth yet peppery Carmenere Più; and Laphroaig, my favorite peat-infused Scotch, which they began making the same year Scott published “Guy Mannering.”

As I pointed out eight months ago, “all the great pandemics have come in waves.” This one has managed three in the United States and two in Europe, and we’re still at least four or five months away from herd immunity. So, while you await your vaccination this holiday season, don’t go nuts. My twelfth step would have appalled the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. But just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are precious few teetotalers in a pandemic.

Happy New Year!