Right now, so many of us are alone and separated from others that we are rightly thinking about the deleterious effects of isolation.
Indeed, it is no accident that isolation is one of the more serious punishments we inflict upon the incarcerated. In a recent New Yorker article, Robin Wright lays out the physical and psychological damage that prolonged loneliness can have. One of the most telling studies cited by Wright is predicated on neurological experiments of the different impact on our bodies of the presence and absence of physical touch.
Being alone can be, and so often is, painful and damaging.
But there is another side to solitude that deserves understanding, and that can perhaps help us not only in this age of epidemic but even as we emerge from it.
In his forthcoming and quite timely book, A History of Solitude, David Vincent traces the long history of solitude as a positive practice, something sought as a means of cultivating a deeper inner life, as a means in religious traditions of seeking God above all else, and, in modernity as a means of escaping from the oppression of industrialized society, and mass or herd culture. In our current period of enforced social distancing, the book raises the question of whether we can turn social deprivation into an opportunity for personal enrichment and communal renewal.
Vincent makes a mistake, I think, in his manner of contrasting loneliness and solitude. In a recent interview he states: "Solitude means being comfortable with your own company. Loneliness is being uncomfortable with your own company." But loneliness seems to me not so much a failure of solitude, as he puts it in the book. If it is a failure at all, it is a failure to connect with others, not with oneself. Very often it is not a failure at all, but rather the overwhelming sense of the absence of love, affection and friendship.
In recent years and especially in contrast to former societies, more individuals live alone. Particularly for those whose lives were already characterized by deprivations of various kinds and those whose lives are now filled with anxiety about the loss of jobs or loved ones at greater risk to die from the virus, isolation can exacerbate an already taxing situation.
Despite the flaw in Vincent's way of framing the contrast between loneliness and solitude, there is something worthwhile in thinking about isolation as an opportunity for much needed solitude. For many, the frenetic pace of life has been slowed and the seeming need to multitask reduced. Perhaps this is the moment for a greater attention to solitude, for the recovery of silence, and for the reconnection to things that matter most in one's life.
We may even have time to entertain what otherwise might seem an outlandish idea, namely, that the lack of reflective solitude contributes to the disorders of our current society — the urgency with which we attend to trivial matters, our obsession with celebrity culture, the hastiness with which we judge and dismiss anyone who disagrees with us, and our indifference to the most needy among us.
On Friday of this past week, Pope Francis delivered an address Urbi et Orbi, to the city and the world. The specific liturgical celebration, delivered on a solemn and rare occasion in the annual life of the Catholic Church, includes an apostolic blessing. Friday's address was a reflection on the Gospel passage in which Jesus and the disciples are on a boat at sea. While Jesus sleeps, a fierce storm arises and the disciples panic.
Francis explicates the direct relevance of the Gospel story to the pandemic. "The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules." Forgetful of the things that "nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities," we have lived at "breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything."
Francis urges us to seize on this moment of solitude to reflect deeply about our lives; it is, he says, "a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not."
It was a striking image, the solitary and frail pope in a vacant, dark and stormy St. Peter's Square, an image and message of how social distancing can provide an occasion for a renewed sense of our connectedness to what matters most in human life.