I taught my last face-to-face class on Friday the 13th. March 13. The students said that we might not meet in that classroom again, and they were right. Every Friday, we meet online, revealing our humble abodes to one another in remote Zooms. Graduation ceremonies have been canceled, and we’re all disappointed to end a promising semester early.
Frankly, I would rather be me than them. My students seem unmoored, adrift. Sails deprived of wind propelled only by their momentum.
“Becalmed” is the word sailors use. But it is the wind that is calm, not the sailors.
I was realizing in conversation this morning that in many ways sheltering in place plays to my strengths. Uninterrupted solitude with time to read and write. A dependable daily routine and rhythm. Getting to bed at the same time every night. As difficult as this is, I have a hardy tolerance for it. My solitude skills are in shape. At least for now. It’s only been a month.
But there is nothing “becalmed” about it. Loneliness sometimes seems soporific. But social isolation is hyper-attentive: concentration difficult, attention scattered, focused energy challenging to maintain.
Health experts predict that a long period of social isolation will increase the prevalence of mental illness. Isolation like this can contribute to a variety of mental disorders, including anxiety and depression, or a more substantial consumption of drugs and alcohol. As Dr. Maggie McQueen said on the PBS Newshour several weeks ago, “We are waiting for the P in PTSD.”
In a recent article in The New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore writes on “The History of Loneliness” (March 30, 2020):
“Before modern times, very few human beings lived alone. Slowly, beginning not much more than a century ago, that changed. In the United States, more than one in four people now lives alone; in some parts of the country, especially big cities, that percentage is much higher. You can live alone without being lonely, and you can be lonely without living alone, but the two are closely tied together, which makes lockdowns, sheltering in place, that much harder to bear. Loneliness, it seems unnecessary to say, is terrible for your health.”
Loneliness, Lepore argues, was already a disaster for our mental health, and enforced social isolation is only compounding our difficulties.
Fifty years ago the percentage of single-person households began to increase dramatically. More divorces (my situation), a falling birth-rate, and longer lifespans all contributed to this. Our technology has aided this trend with radios, televisions, telephones, computers, empowering our ability to self-isolate. In addition, the breakdown in social cohesion and the impermanence of neighborhoods allows a type of seclusion that would have seemed eccentric to a previous generation.
Dr. Renato Alarcon writes in Psychiatric Times:
“It is clear that COVID-19 has seriously challenged not only every line of protection and management installed by governments and public health authorities around the globe, but also—and fundamentally—the human, clinical, and practical resources of mental health service agencies.” (“Mental Health in a Pandemic State: the route from Social Isolation to Loneliness”, March 25, 2020).
The pandemic shakes our hospitals, our economies, our governments, our bodies, our psyches.
In a lively essay in Vox, Sigal Samuel offers a reflection on “How to Be Alone” (April 11, 2020). Samuel underlines that trying to escape an uncomfortable emotion often only intensifies it. So how can we lean into our enforced solitude? How might we become at home with our loneliness?
Lots of people have experience with solitude: prisoners, hermits, monks, artists, philosophers. What might such people have to teach us? Samuel offers rather trite and straightforward advice to accept and confront your reality, establish a routine, try to find a sense of purpose.
Isolation has both rewards and risks. “The poison is in the dose,” said Paracelsus back in the 16th century. Anything can be deadly if it isn’t moderated.
The potential rewards of isolation lie in reconnecting with nature, a deeper self-reflection, or exposing our delusions. But the risks are many.
Solitude can be dangerous for people. If you are unprepared it can be especially scary. “Whatever one brings into solitude grows in it,” said Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “even the inner beast.” Thus, “solitude is ill-advised,” concluded the philosopher.
And Blaise Pascal (d. 1662) famously said “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Written perhaps, quietly, in a room alone.
But we had no choice. We were all forced into this solitude. Sheltered in place if voluntary (like myself), but confined if involuntary.
Psychologists recommend increased exposure over time so that our brains can adapt to the distress we feel in isolation. Periodic panic attacks are frequent right now, partly because we have had to make this shift so suddenly, without time to adjust.
Samuel recommends a tool from Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions that assists in developing our “distress tolerance.” It’s a relatively detailed and substantive approach rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness techniques that might not be to everyone’s taste. But then again their way of doing it might be better than your way of not doing it.
The science-based techniques they recommend are not distinctively different from what experts in solitude have recommended throughout history. Accept and stay with the emotion you’re feeling. Stop what you’re doing. Watch what’s happening. Observe how it changes or “moves”. Then turn your attention back to the present, to the task at hand with perhaps a breath exercise or some bodily movement (I would recommend the work of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing for insight into this.)
The continuity between experience-based and science-based learning increases the validity of the findings. We can become accustomed to our lengthened periods of solitude or loneliness. Prolonged isolation may not be good for our physical or mental health. But we can learn to increase the “distress tolerance” we may feel.
Samuel, therefore, argues that solitude is a skill we can develop. Although few of us will want to prolong this painful experience beyond what we are advised, we can learn to cope with it. And we better. Learning to be at home with our loneliness is our curriculum for this time.
April 13, 2020