The longer this pandemic flows on, the more it seems the days grow somehow quieter, eerily quiet in fact. The bar beneath us hasn’t made a peep in well over a month. There are fewer cars on the street below, fewer voices on the corner with no one waiting for the bus. I know it’s still running, but I no longer notice the train to Manhattan pulling into the station the way I used to nearly every day.
The immediate panic of those earlier days seems to have subsided, at least outside of the grocery store, but as more people are settled into this new reality, there’s this sadness that seems to coat everything, replacing the fury and rush of weeks earlier. There remains an underlying stress to everything, though–an intense worry I can’t quite shake. It seems to be prevalent everywhere.
But so are silver linings.
Now, it seems, anyone and everyone you might pass walking down the street gives you a kind nod or says hello from their porch. The very lack of connection right now demands a new kind of connection somehow as we pass through this liminal time and space.
We’ve also dived into projects we might never have considered otherwise. We discussed planting seeds on the roof but settled on a hydroponic garden using the old aquarium instead. The news is always on, usually in the background, but we fill the hours in a way to almost make a pandemic enjoyable–writing, painting, playing music, even cleaning is now somehow therapeutic for me to a point my mother would be thrilled to hear.
I’m baffled, I guess, by the way different people are handling this era. I talked with a friend recently who noted a severe depression that had overtaken her–strong feelings of disappointment and low self-esteem amid her joblessness. I’m tempted and want to counsel, “Take up a project.” I simultaneously want to say, “It’s okay to be depressed right now; you’re living through a pandemic. That’s not your fault, and if you spend all day being depressed, that’s okay too. Now is the time to be gentle with yourself.”
Or put another way, we need to be where we need to be right now, plain and simple, and if we’re capable of taking on this world, great, and if we’re not, that’s of no less consequence. It isn’t the time for that kind of judgment, if ever it were.
I have the very odd fortune–or is it privilege–of having lived through and known seriously isolating times long before this, whether it was being the only native English speaker for miles in the middle of a desert oasis or working on a sleepy island only accessible by ferry or the anguish of a three-year job search that seemed it would never turn out my way.
I’m tempted, again, to give advice for how to cope with the isolation, the cabin fever, the hopelessness, and to be fair, there were certainly lessons learned in those ugly moments in my past. I draw even now on my elders who had lived through two wars and a depression and who, as grandparents, found joy in the simplest things. What you and I might regard as severe boredom–bird-watching or going for a walk or doing the daily crossword–were actually quite precious moments to them, when they took time to pause and acknowledged that not every moment has to give way to some obsessive need to counter our “fear of missing out” or living some grandiose sense of purpose.
That is to say, I think there’s a life-giving difference between “isolation” and “solitude,” a difference I think my ancestors learned well. Isolation implies not just a lack of community but an alienation from it. Solitude, on the other hand, is the state of being alone without being lonely. There’s something mystic and spiritual in solitude, and there’s opportunity in it–the chance to listen to those sacred old voices within calling us forth to hear ourselves and to hear the other. To be in isolation, we’re painfully aware of our lack of the other, focused only inward on our own loss, but to be in solitude, we’re self-aware and grateful for what we do and don’t have to gift of ourselves to the world.
This is not to say that solitude brings only joy while isolation brings sorrow. To the contrary, I think that solitude can still be deeply lonely and can leave us feeling lost and meandering. But whereas isolation brings about those same feelings, solitude regards those feelings as necessary, seeing them as a means to an end–not just pains but growing pains. There’s purpose in being lost, after all–finding and being found!
I’ve thought a lot lately about a modern parable a friend from my past liked to tell about a patient of psychologist Carl Jung who had a dream he was sinking, as if in quicksand:
His doctor came by, and waste deep, he called for help. His priest passed while he sank further and screamed. Neck deep, he saw Dr. Jung coming and knew he’d be saved, but Jung reached out, pushed down on his head, saying: ‘Not out, but through!’
But “going through” as opposed to avoiding, running, or ignoring, requires we step out of our comfort zones and embrace vulnerability and the unknown. It’s terrifying. And that’s particularly underscored right now, as we face not just economic and political uncertainties but may, indeed, be staring down literal death. It’s an odd combination, actually: we’re isolated or in solitude because we don’t want to die or cause death; simultaneously, we are forced to confront that very possibility.
I think the biggest risk here is that a lot of us are tempted right now to embrace “fake news” because the alternative–facing literal death–is just too scary. I’ve been thinking about this obsessively, this picture of our political leaders selling snake oil, first, because doing so can make them rich, but also because snake oil has the property of providing temporary, if albeit false, comfort–the very kind that keeps you subdued and submissive to those who sold it to you in the first place.
Growing up, it’ll probably come as no surprise that I got accused of being too negative and cynical. It hurt a lot of relationships, even though I saw myself as just trying to be a realist. And there are days where I wonder if I would’ve had it simpler had I just bought the damn snake oil once in a while–if I’d just succumbed to an “ignorance is bliss” approach. Bliss sounds nice, anyway–to the point I still struggle with this question wondering about the road not taken.
But what is the price of today’s snake oil? How many hundreds, or thousands of lives, literal human lives, will be sacrificed, slaughtered, because our leaders and friends say, in a desperation to end this isolating moment, that they’re just optimistic, hopeful people?
If the way we start living blurs the lines between what some call hope and what others call stupidity or ignorance, that “hope” may be short-lived. Already, so many have watched it turn to despair and discovered it wasn’t hope at all, that snake oil they bought.
And whether we find ourselves in isolation or solitude, lost and searching for whatever may return us to some normalcy, I’m starting to think some of us will have to learn our lessons the hard way–not meditating on the pain of this moment with solitary saunterings but rushing out, eager to end the isolation by whatever means necessary and finding instead that contemplation was thrust upon us in the end by our poor choices.
If, instead, we embrace this moment as one to listen, to be vulnerable, to be open about how much this hurts and ask for help where and when it’s needed, we might find amid our sadness that we weren’t just listening for our own sake, weren’t just vulnerable to our benefit, weren’t just asking for help without also offering it, because when we cope in “solitude,” we discover our heart, our thoughts, our spirit are as connected to everyone almost as if they’d been standing beside us all along, embracing us on the way, whispering in our ears like a cloud of witnesses a litany of love to get us through this moment.
“This, too, shall pass,” the sage wisdom is offered, but how it passes, how we allow it to go by, and which voices, sage or not, we listen to–that is what really matters in this eerily quiet and concerning time.