Doing Nothing

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.” 

These are the opening lines of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger. If these words seem gruesome, it’s because the reader has an expectation that a ‘normal’ person simply must know when his or her mother died. 

But does it really make any difference if my mother died today or yesterday? 

The Stranger, like so many other books and songs, reminds me of living with the dominant presence of  the Coronavirus. The days become indistinguishable. The virus—or death even—has become an intimate part of all aspects of my life.  

Camus’s story about Meursault, whose mother is dead, might be regarded as absurd. Instead of grieving at his mother’s funeral, Meursault falls in love with a girl. Afterward they go to the beach, where they bathe and make love. The girl wants to marry Meursault, and he tells her that it is of no consequence, but if she really wants to, he will go along with it. 

Today or yesterday, marriage or no marriage: Nothing really matters to Meursault. As if nothing is important. And that is exactly the point: Nothing—or death, to emphasize my point—is important. 

Since mid-march, I’ve been imprisoned—together with my wife and our three children—in our apartment in Barcelona, Spain. As a family, we do many things. Many more or less normal things, like cooking, eating, playing, working, homeschooling, reading, training, and watching a film together daily. 

Listing all these things, I can’t help realizing that I actually do nothing when it comes to fighting the pandemic. Of course, I’ve—we all have—been told that we do good by staying home. 

Still, I wonder: How can doing good feel like doing nothing? 

When I do nothing, I do so to the level that any Buddhistic monk would envy my capacity for non-doing. Non-doing resembles what we refer to when we say that something has presence. Life has presence. The Latin word prae-esseliterally means “to be in front of.” After 41 days (and counting) of imprisonment, I feel like standing more directly in front of life. It’s within reach; I can touch it, smell it—and, at the same time, I am also just being a witness to a crucial part of life, to the doctors, nurses, garbage collectors, and supermarket employees who are doing what the government calls essential work.

So, I wonder some more, whether all this doing nothing is absurd? After all, being a writer is not on the list of essential jobs.

When you write, it’s impossible to distinguish the story from how it is being told, its style, and general mood. The stories being written now will have another rhythm. Perhaps a kind of non-rhythm. For example, while doing nothing, it doesn’t matter what day it is. Presence doesn’t exclude time, but it binds time to a now and here. This is a liberating experience. Most of us are much more here: present.

Maybe that is why I never really did find Meursault’s behavior in The Stranger absurd; rather, it confirmed his capacity of being present with something much more important: death. 

The coronavirus is raising many questions, but one seems to be of great importance: How do we accommodate death? How do we live with the daily presence of death? 

The French essayist Michel de Montaigne said that to philosophize is to learn to die. The idea came from Plato, who saw his mentor Socrates condemned to death because he encouraged young people to think. Socrates could have avoided the punishment, but he chose to drink the poisonous potion of hemlock. 

One way of learning to die is to acknowledge the questions that the end of life confront us with. How can we minimize the estrangement that can arise in our meeting with death? Why does death make so many feel uncomfortable? 

I assume that the answer is not only—as typically proposed—related to the fact that death makes us reflect on whether we manage, or managed, to live sufficiently, whether we were attentive and full of appreciation and gratitude. Death is not what makes life meaningful per se. Quite the contrary, life is what makes life meaningful and worth living. I see the daily presence of death as a test of how well I live with nothing, for example, doing nothing, not being capable of doing anything, or more, accepting my mental or spiritual limitations. 

Doing nothing is for many people—in our current coronavirus—the same as doing good. But is it good in the sense that we come closer to dying without being dead? Perhaps it’s similar to Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy, which was not a resignation, not even the kind of refusal that is found in Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and his “I would prefer not to”; rather it was doing non-violence. Nothing can, therefore, be done

So, doing nothing should not make people feel inferior or impotent. I don’t. Rather I am grateful to be witness to so many courageous women and men making things work. 

Many years ago, I accepted that I have a need to invent or create ideas, thoughts, or worlds of fiction. I don’t think that words can stop a virus, but perhaps they can heal wounds caused by the virus. Literature and art can challenge, shock, and expand our field of experience. It is difficult to share sorrow without the aid of art. What binds people together in Europe, where I am placed, is not the European Union; political solidarity is almost absent in the region. The borders are closed. Each nation is responsible for their own actions. What connects people are music and relieving words of compassion. Literature is like a string of sentences tying the past to the present, while throwing a lifebuoy of words into the future.

Death can easily steal time, as people stay in front of their screens slurping the corona news 24/7. It can also make time stand still. During these weeks, most people will experience why the French philosopher Henri Bergson defined time as duration. An hour can feel short or very long, even though 60 minutes is 60 minutes. Bergson can teach us that accepting what is real can be both a positive or negative experience, though it doesn’t change what time really is. 

Paying attention to the passing present moment is also a way of qualifying what forms of life we might leave behind when we can leave our apartments. What will I not forget? Which life is really worth living? 

During the crisis, we are confronted with the basics: Life is movement. Something in life moves us, makes us feel alive. Is death part of it? Yes. Love is another pole. It takes courage to accept the presence of death—that is, to be willing to risk everything for nothing. 

The coronavirus makes me become nothing, not feel like nothing. I am impermanent, constantly changing, becoming someone else. I hope that I might be of a kind of use, when and if I am capable of affirming life when it passes through me. Catching life with a word. Actually, becoming nothing makes me think of the British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who once said that “in the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego.”

 I believe that this corona-experience is good for my moral formation. 

The morale might be something like: Doing nothing is good, and when I become nothing, I am good. Why? Becoming nothing makes it easier to resonate with all life’s movements. 

First published in The Mindful Word, April 2020

My Quarantine Journal

My first eight dates of quarantine began Friday the 13th of March. This part of the journal was published in Beyond Words, issue 2, April 2020.

Today (22th of April) is my 41st day of quarantine … so to be continued.

Sådan slipper du for at lære noget

Hvad kan vi egentlig lære af corona-epidemien? Det er der mange bud på i disse tider. Forfatteren og filosoffen Finn Janning er overbevist om, at den tænkepause, som corona giver os, vil få mange til at gøre op med den måde, de hidtil har levet på.

Du kan høre podcasten her

Things Should Not Return to Normal

Spain—the country closed down two weeks ago—Friday, March 13, to be exact. As an uninvited ‘guest,’ the Coronavirus invites all kinds of (perhaps premature) reflections. For instance, are European countries moving in a totalitarian direction?

They are not, I would claim, and for two reasons: Europeans would never allow it, and more importantly, democracies deal with threats like the Coronavirus better.

Although many European citizens are experiencing and will experience various limitations on their individual freedom—you can get a fine for strolling around without a justifiable purpose—democracy is not only about freedom, but also about duty and responsibility. Acting responsibly requires each one of us to be conscious about what we do and why we do it.

The core of democracy is that it teaches us that we should not be concerned only for ourselves. Rather, we are in this together. I have a responsibility not only for my own health, but also for the health of other citizens. In other words, I am responsible for the others’ well-being, as they are for mine.

As a consequence, I find it meaningful to limit my freedom of movement, minimize (physical) social contact and so forth, because I might become a risk for other, more vulnerable citizens.


Freedom and responsibility hang together. Our responsibility is the string that ties us together and what actually makes us free. Norms are meaningful—not because they are universal or come from a fictional god; on the contrary, norms are social artifacts made and remade by human beings.

The Danish philosopher K. E. Løgstrup said in The Ethical Demand (1956) that ‘trust is fundamental.’ Each person holds a part of the other’s life in his or her—hopefully clean—hands, and vice versa. By laying oneself open to the others, we accept our shared vulnerability. The ethical demand or obligation doesn’t refer to specific transcendental moral categories, only this basic trust.

“Human life could hardly exist if it were otherwise.” For example, I trust that it is not just my wife, our three children and me who are staying home. I trust that other families are doing the same. Any epidemic or pandemic exposes how well a society acts in a responsible and trustworthy manner. Do we care about one another, or just about our own opportunistic interests?

Trust and responsibility are the exact opposite of egoism. I might go out for a run because I—statistically—am not at risk. I might empty the supermarket, and thereby neglect other citizens’ well-being.

It appears as if trust and responsibility are threatened by the coronavirus. In contrast, I would claim that these fundamental qualities were already threatened by capitalism. Yet, the Coronavirus might reactivate our civic spirit. I see this virus as an invitation to reflect more deeply about our lives.

I think we’d like to remember at least three things. First, the huge amount of inventive and creative ways in which we share our loss and fear. For example, when we reach out to our fellow human beings through singing, clapping and helping. The amount of generosity in Spain (and elsewhere) is touching. Second, we are in this together. Third, we can only prevail if we trust each other.

Trust is what actually brings us together, much more than holding hands. Trust reaches further than our hugs. Trust reaches out to the future. If trust is fundamental, it is because it doesn’t distinguish between the lives worth preserving and those regarded as not worth preserving—at least not beforehand.

Trust, of course, can be broken, but only because it was already there to begin with. Trust, as I see it, is related to the kind of thinking about being interconnected that can be found in mindfulness and ecological thinking. For instance, if I neglect or ignore another person, I also neglect or ignore myself. None of us can exist alone.


I believe that the virus will make us remember that we can’t survive without trust and compassion, because we’re all interconnected. We depend on each other. This interdependency is what distinguishes totalitarian regimes from democracies.

Saying this is not the same as giving democratic governments carte blanche. In any democratic society, citizens must critically monitor the actions taken by the government. It’s part of the deal.

In today’s rigid, populistic world of identity politics, we rarely focus on healing the wounds between races, genders and sexual orientations. On the contrary, we often fertilize these, to create enmity and rigid group loyalty. Similarly, sometimes the precautions and arrangements made by politicians can create more panic than calm.

Still, I would contend that the panic is not so much related to the temporary limitations of our individual freedom as it is to how openly and honestly the politicians communicate. It’s obvious that some politicians are corrupted by money and power; they think in terms of voters and elections. Yet, others actually do think. To think is to care for matters beyond our own interests.

Therefore, the best solution is, of course, not a dictatorship but citizenship. In a trusted democracy, when a politician asks citizens to act responsibly (to activate their public spirit), they wash their hands, limit public transportation, keep their distance or stay at home for weeks, as my family does now in Spain (until April 11, as the situation is right now).

When democracy works, politicians don’t have to create new laws, but through honest and thoughtful communication, they can awaken civic spirit.

The civic spirit is not about rights, but about duty, and the silent demands that tie us together. Duty and obligation not only come before rights, they also encourage us to think and act consciously, evaluating whether we need to do a certain thing that may be within our rights.

Do I really need to fulfill my right to mingle, right now, when social contact ought to be minimized? Of course not. This is also why things should not return to ‘normal,’ because many things were abnormal before the Coronavirus: neoliberal greed, resource scarcity, climate destruction, stress, anxiety…

It’s not about our rights, but our shared obligations. Rights tend to reduce everything to a question of being for or against. Life is not that stubbornly simple. No one is for the Coronavirus. In the same vein, no one is for avoiding their grandparents; it is just a necessary and responsible choice.

Civic spirit stresses that the value of our lives is related to what we leave behind—thoughts, behaviours and gestures that enable future citizens to live and act freely.

The Coronavirus puts all of us in a difficult situation. It tests our attitude towards others, and our trust in their maturity and ability to act responsibly. The Coronavirus is not only a catastrophe; it is also an opportunity for us to see ourselves, to relate to the world with more kindness and compassion, and to change our capitalistic forms of life.

The better we act together, the sooner we can start kissing, hugging and drinking together again—like real democratic citizens.

– 26. March 2020

This essay was first publish in The Mindful Word

Hvad kan vi lære af coronavirussen?

I de her dage, hvor corona-epidemien vender op og ned på mange menneskers hverdag, kan situationen så give noget positivt til vores liv. Hvis man spørger forfatter og filosof Finn Janning, så kan situationen give os en fornyet klarhed om vores eget liv. Daniel Cesar taler med forfatter og filosof Finn Janning.

Du kan høre udsendelsen her

Ingen forbudte spørgsmål

Forfatter og ph.d i praktisk filosofi Finn Janning tror og håber, flere vil tage de erkendelser, de gør sig sammen med familien under coronakrisen, med videre.

”Travlhed er ikke et udslag af handlekraft eller vigtighed, men snarere et vidnesbyrd om, at den forjagede person ikke ved, hvor han eller hun er på vej hen i livet.”

Sådan skrev Finn Janning, der er forfatter og ph.d. i praktisk filosofi, tidligere på ugen i et debatindlæg i Information. Heri pointerede han også, at ”hastværk er tæt forbundet med generel uopmærksomhed”.

Men hvordan mener Finn Janning, det ses i forhold til familielivet, var jeg nødt til at spørge. Her er han ikke i tvivl:

– Mange familier kører efter et ret stramt skema; skole, arbejde, fritids- og sportsaktiviteter, legeaftaler mv. Det betyder, at der kan være en tendens til at kigge mere på uret end på ens børn eller partner. Det handler mere om at nå frem i tide, end at være til stede. Dette er en triviel pointe, men ikke desto mindre glemmer mange at efterleve den, selvom det er klart, at den største gave, vi kan give vores børn – og andre – er vores opmærksomhed, siger han til fø

Læs resten af interviewet her.

Efter 14 dages husarrest …

Jeg forudser, at de fleste i løbet af de næste 14 dage vil opleve udgangsforbuddet medføre en frigørende klarhed om eget liv. Coronaen kan fortælle os, at frihed er at være bundet af nogle meningsfulde bånd. Og at disse bånd aldrig er kapitalismens, men kærlighedens, skriver forfatter og filosof Finn Janning i dette debatindlæg.

Læs kronikken i Information.

Samfundssind og cykling

Jo mere sammensindet styrkes af corona, des mere lider kapitalismen

Kapitalen er styret af tanken om, at den stærkeste overlever. Men i coronakrisen klarer vi os kun, hvis vi samarbejder.

Cykelsporten kan lære os at håndtere coronavirussen som et hold. De, der er bekendte med cykling, kender til fænomenet, når fem forskellige ryttere i et udbrud arbejder sammen. Det kan virke underligt, da de netop ikke kører for samme hold eller nation. Filosofien er dog simpel: Ingen af de fem ryttere kan komme alene frem til målet uden samarbejde. Hovedfeltet, i dette tilfælde virussen, vil æde dem op, en efter en. For at undgå det, må de skiftes til at trække læsset, mens de fire andre ligger i læ. Sådan skifter de.

Samme altruistiske princip gør sig også gældende på de enkelte cykelhold, hvad enten private eller nationale. Her er der en kaptajn, vores er Mette Frederiksen, men vi kører ikke kun for hende, vi kører for at vinde, som hold. Og så længe hun har gode ben, altså fremstår dygtig og handlekraftig på en meget svær rute, så arbejder vi loyalt.

Det interessante spørgsmål er, hvorvidt de personer, der ikke arbejder for holdet og heller ikke vil arbejde på tværs af holdene, hvis det er nødvendigt, simpelthen mangler holdånd. Holdånden er demokratiets styrke, men kapitalismens akilleshæl.

De mennesker, der mangler holdånd i Spanien, hvor jeg bor, er gerne de velhavende. På grund af deres penge føler de sig bedre – tilsyneladende også moralsk bedre – end andre. De tager ud af byen til deres små ekstrahuse for at redde sig selv, fordi de kan. Men de tænker sjældent på, at de måske tager virus med til en landlig og afsides region, hvor der er få læger, men gerne mange ældre.

Sporten, som ellers bliver klandret for at være styret af penge, handler reelt om samarbejde. Det samme kan siges om fodbolden, hvor den bedste fodboldspiller Lionel Messi mangler et godt hold for at vinde. Alene kan han ikke. De, der tager ud i deres sommerresidens, hamstrer eller trodser forbud, fordi de ikke selv er i risiko, mangler den holdånd, der kan sikre en sejr.

På en måde er det sigende, at jo mere samfundsånden styrkes i disse dage, desto mere lider kapitalismen. Det er selvfølgelig hårdt og trist, at mange mennesker lider økonomisk, men det er også en del af kapitalismens natur.

Kapitalen er styret af socialdarwinismen perversion: Den stærkeste overlever. Men den stærkeste er ikke den rigeste, det er derimod den som kan arbejde sammen med andre.

Det er ikke, når aktiekurserne stiger, at vi er kommet igennem krisen. Nej, det er vi først, når vi igen kan begynde at afholde cykelløb og spille fodbold. Så kan vi igen mødes med vores venner, nede på baren, drikke og råbe sammen. Den eneste forskel er dog, at vi nu ved, at sporten har lært os mere om livet, end kapitalismen nogensinde har formået.

Bragt i Politiken, søndag den 22. marts.

Jeg har også deltaget i podcasten Aftenklubben på radio Nova omkring coronavirussen. Den kan høres her.

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