Viral Reality: In Praise of Solitude

Learning how to be alone is a gift that will outlast these times.

Posted May 02, 2020

In the midst of this coronavirus madness, I have the uncomfortable feeling that I’m not miserable enough. I’m in a high-risk group because I have a predisposition to frequent lung infections, such as pneumonia and pleurisy, so I’m abiding by the government’s warnings and self-isolating in my little house in the canyon.

What makes me uneasy is how easy I’m finding solitude. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not completely disconnected from the world. I email, text, talk on the phone with friends. I watch the news, as much of it as I can stand. I binge-watch good old movies and bad TV. And I read, read, read to my heart’s content. But there it is, that suspicious word: I am content to be alone.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be. As a mental health advocate, I hear a lot from psychiatric sources that seem universally concerned with the impact of isolation on a vulnerable population already predisposed to mental illness—like me. The British Journal of Psychiatry said that while “studies on the psychological effects of quarantine are limited, research shows that patients in medical isolation can experience increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as feelings of fear, abandonment, loneliness, and stigmatization.” Sources of stress include “decreased sensory stimulation, limited social support, and lack of access to standard coping strategies, such as spiritual or religious practices or exercising outdoors. These circumstances, along with missing work and other obligations, can trigger a powerful sense of losing control.”

I get it. I especially miss my weekly routine—it’s a cornerstone of my recovery from bipolar disorder. But I’m finding, paradoxically, that while all around me people seem to be bemoaning their fate, a curious calm has descended on me. I have this strange feeling that among the slew of things Amazon has delivered to my home this week, there was an oddly wrapped package of opportunity.

I’m not the only one, apparently, who sees isolation as a gift and is eager to explore it. Take Schopenhauer: “Genuine tranquility of the heart and perfect peace of mind, the highest blessings on earth after health, are to be found only in solitude and, as a permanent disposition, only in the deepest seclusion.” Even Freud, a paean of sanity, saw its necessity: “Great decisions in the realm of thought and momentous discoveries and solutions of problems are only possible to an individual, working in solitude.”

But my favorite quote is from the always-poetic mathematician Blaise Pascal: “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit quiet in a room alone.”

What is it that drives us so crazy about confronting our own thoughts, to the extent that we must drown them out with 24/7 noise and feedback and distraction and connection? And this isn’t just a failing of the iPhone era. Kierkegaard noted well over a century ago that “In antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages there was an awareness of the longing for solitude and a respect for what it means; whereas in the constant sociality of our day we shrink from solitude to the point that no use for it is known other than as a punishment for criminals.”

Perhaps when we are face-to-face with only ourselves, there is no filter between us and the darker truths we spend so much of our conscious lives trying to evade. As Guy de Maupassant put it, “When we are alone for a long time, we people the void with phantoms.” I know from my own experience with clinical depression that I’ll do anything to escape confrontation with that black beast. Even Virginia Woolf, who advocated so forcefully for a room of one’s own, knew that being alone can have its perils: “I begin to be impatient of solitude—to feel its draperies hang sweltering, unwholesome about me,” she wrote.

So is the enforced isolation of this pandemic a sentence of solitary confinement? Or, as Thomas Mann said, is it a chance to “give birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous—to poetry?” I think it depends on how willing you are to suspend your fears and judgment about yourself. I don’t often find myself quoting Nietzsche with approbation, but I think this time he got it right: It’s “your bad love of [yourself] that makes solitude a prison to you.”

Try to approach your naked mind with compassion. We are not living in easy times. But for better or worse, this is history—make of it what you will. And who knows? Perhaps on the other side of uncertainty, we will all have discovered that we have nothing to fear from solitude. It’s a lesson to be treasured, as Michel de Montaigne so aptly observed: “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”