French mathematician, physicist, philosopher, writer (and all-round 17th-century renaissance man) Blaise Pascal famously said that ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ Covid-19 and the necessity (or imposition, whichever side you’re on) of lockdown has tested us on this. That is to say, some of us and in some ways.
I write ‘some of us’ as I refer primarily to those of who switched to working from home. And ‘in some ways’ because we are of course, in wealthier countries, digitally connected. We may technically be ‘alone’, yet we have access to communication upon pushing a few buttons.
Still, there’s no doubt that in lockdown, we’re most of us more isolated than before. ‘Isolation’ may appear a strong word, but it comes from the Latin insula, meaning ‘island.’ And that’s how I imagine us, individuals and small family units, inhabiting the islands of our homes, immersed in our own micro-cultures. Or perhaps like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and the people he meets on his travels, each inhabiting a separate planet, their own tiny worlds revolving, quite literally around them. The deluded king, the preoccupied businessman…
I digress. The point is that most of us have had more time on our own than usual. The sheer number of distractions is, typically, far less. I am alone at my desk, pending my next Zoom meeting, no occasional chatter with colleagues, no ‘tea round’, no city crowd, no commute; not the distractions of getting lunch, a coffee, newspaper, small talk in shops, with neighbours; no social events – unless, again, online.
In the non-working hours, have I filled this greater alone-time with digital distraction and personal admin., or have I used it more productively? Have I taken the opportunity to sit, think and reflect, as Pascal seems to suggest, or to increase the time I can spend on reading and on writing? Or have I surrendered to the clamour of social media, taken long trips down the Youtube ‘rabbit hole’?
It’s varied. In times of anxiety, I have sought easy, mindless distraction. In times of strength and new resolution, I have looked to use the time for creative pursuits, perhaps meditation. Seldom, however, have I simply, silently, thought.
There’s a wider point. Have we lost the art of living without constant stimulation on tap? Of sitting quietly, appreciating what another 17th-century polymath, Thomas Browne, called “… the advantage of solitude, and the society of thyself,” with all the advantages of quiet contemplation, self-reflection and self-awareness that can bring.
In her article ‘Solitude as Medicine’, Virginia Thomas highlights key, research-based benefits of time alone. We enter an affective state of “low-arousal” as opposed to ‘high-arousal” or highly stimulated by activity and environment. A low-arousal state has a “de-activating” or disconnecting effect on our nervous system. We can experience this as loneliness or boredom – or more positively as calm and relaxation.
As an aside, this may relate to some older folks commenting that kids today need to have the opportunity to get ‘bored’ – left to their own devices, without complex toys and electronic gadgets, to fuel the imagination, to learn how to occupy themselves.
Thomas also points out that solitude evidently acts as a form of self-regulation, providing balance between fluctuation of the positive and negative emotional states we normally encounter in fast-paced lives. This sounds like allowing your mind to go into ‘neutral gear’ or stand-by mode. This state allows feeling we have been ignoring, or perhaps been unaware of, to arise and be addressed.
So perhaps we need to understand that solitude is not necessarily about disconnection from the outside world and from others, but rather taking time to exercise reflection and introspection. I wonder whether it is a lesson we’ll carry into (what we hope will soon be) a post-Covid world.