Shirley Le Penne

Double-Edged

Can We Sit Quietly in a Room Alone?

Our answer determines how we handle, and emerge from, the COVID-19 crisis.

Posted May 07, 2020

We write this in solitude, near but far from each other. We write this to connect. Connect the dots in our mind, connect one mind to another, connect our minds to hard realities, connect with others who may find these words meaningful. Are they?

Throughout the crisis, so many words have converged under that trite title, “[love and hate | faith | presidential politics | smart travel] in the Time of Coronavirus.” This too is an attempt to connect—to Gabriel García Márquez’s beloved novel—and to form a framework to channel our worries and wonders. Still, when making sense of this crisis, another Márquez novel provides an equally fitting title: One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Or at least one hundred days. Yet even that might be too much when we so dearly want, need, to connect to others and their experiences, now that they are so much like our own. Now that death feels closer, we want to feel—and make others feel—that we are in this together, not alone in despair or in hope. When locked down Italians sing and play music apart but together, showing the virus what viral really means, it’s hard to miss the human spirit trying to transcend, through sound, the mess we’re in. That all this, we know, is part of our innate need to belong, and be needed too, matters less. It’s beautiful.

But it might have a darker side. When seeking social bonds so badly, do we not flee from what “the Time of Coronavirus” urges us most—to be alone, with only our thoughts to keep us company? That itself is a troubling thought. We are terrified of meeting ourselves in a dark alley. “All of humanity's problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal in his Pensées [Thoughts]. And a scientific study corroborated this, suggesting that people left alone with their thoughts are inclined to occupy themselves by giving themselves a mild electric shock.

 WikiArt, Fair Use
Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932
Source: WikiArt, Fair Use

Solitude is vital for true solidarity, which is not just about feeling good, but about doing good, together; and we cannot hope to figure out what is good without, well, thinking about it. Are our heartfelt acts of solidarity with others not also signs of trouble with ourselves, a flight from reflective solitude fed by new technologies that offer connection without affection—and without affliction? 

For a generation now, technology has helped us come together, but also, if we so wished, escape ourselves and others, undermining true solidarity—and intimacy. If social media has notoriously left us “alone together… expecting more from technology and less from each other,” it may have done so because being truly with ourselves, or fully with others, is often painful. But such pain can now be discarded with a hefty dose of dopamine

Still, throughout those years, another pain kicked in: our “skin hunger” for one another, but more so the phantom pain of the missing limb of intimacy that we ourselves severed. Have we learned nothing from Harry Harlow’s experiments, where infant macaques facing a wire mother holding a bottle with food, and a cloth mother holding no food, repeatedly clung to the latter? Perhaps we wished we had evolved beyond this “contact comfort” to “creature comfort.” Perhaps we should be more careful about what we wish for.

The phantom pain was easier to manage when we could tell ourselves that we might regain intimacy at any moment. The coronavirus shattered that delusion, brutally. But having lost ourselves, can we find others? Without embracing our own, intrapersonal “two-in-one,” how can we truly embrace others to become “one-in-two”? Or perhaps we won’t want to. Perhaps we should go back to the etymology of crisis, “decision,” to use this viral crisis as a chance to make a better choice. If real solidarity, let alone intimacy, requires some reflective solitude—if “know thyself” is needed to “know thy other”—the reverse might also be true. Maybe we can regain ourselves also by truly connecting to others.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Le Penne, S. (2017). Longing to Belong: Needing to be Needed in a World in Need. Society 54, 535–536.

Wilson, T.D. et al. (2014). Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind. Science Vol. 345, Issue 6192, 75-77.