The Irresistible Draw of Isolation

My husband grew a beard this winter. I like the way it looks on him–sort of rugged and manly–but I’ve noticed it doesn’t really invite you to get closer. It obscures some of my favorite parts of his face–his dimpled chin, the soft part of his cheek.

Over the Christmas break, when we didn’t have much to do but lie around getting over the flu, I had occasion to spend a little more time looking at him with his beard, and I was reminded of those earlier years of marriage when I’d frequently give him a good looking-over, checking out the lines in his face, his pores, how his eyes looked both open and closed.

Such inspections always raised the question: who is this man with whom I’m sharing my life? We’ve now been living side by side for nearly 13 years, but proximity does not equal intimacy. I’ve taken for granted that we know one another–I know his habits, frequencies and origins– but sometimes he’s still a bit of a riddle. He’s capable of surprising me with new ideas and impetuses–subtle shifts in his habits when he changes his mind about something that I might not notice if I weren’t paying attention. The truth is, sometimes I’m not paying attention.

While just staring at someone doesn’t bring any dramatic enlightenment into the mysteries of their soul, it does provide familiarity, which is a step in the direction of intimacy. If I want to know why you do something, I watch for clues. I try to know your story.

Presumably, the same thing occurs in the Adoration chapel, where I look at God present in the Eucharist; He looks at me: I adore him, praise him, try to know him with my eyes open and shut, and ask for the ability to love him as I should, or to love him afresh, as though it were the first moment of my acquaintance with The Word.

When you want to start to love someone, you look at them. You can’t love when you’re trying to flee. You can’t love as you plot exit strategies or count down the seconds until the looking-time is over.

Several years ago, my sister sent me a book of poems called Recovered Body by Scott Cairns. I’ve returned to a particular poem in the book again and again, called “The Entrance of Sin,” in which sin creeps into the garden of Eden, not when the serpent visits Eve, but “in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.”

“One supposes that, even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.”

There is sort of a default setting in American culture that marriage and family-life are a drag. We know all the popular tropes: Family is the most important thing in life. Spouse comes first. Children are a blessing. But for every trope there’s an equal and opposite resistance: I know there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing. I give, give, give, but who’s meeting MY needs? I love my kids, but I need me-time.

The negative tropes have just as strong a voice in our culture as the positive ones, perhaps stronger, because one of the greatest treasures of civilized society is independence, the right to pursue one’s own concept of happiness, which often includes a subtle preference for personal isolation. It’s difficult to follow one’s own will, after all, when there are people who rely on you.

Isolation is not only irresistible, it’s easier. When you’re tired and the volume level at home annoys you, you know that you can quiet people by spending time with them, or by yelling at them–but yelling will probably get the job done faster. It will be painful, it will cause rupture, possibly your own, it will alienate people you love, but there will be quiet and you will be alone.

Then you can look inward, or screen-ward, or any variation on away from the people you love, and avoid any demands they might put on your time and attention. Do this often enough and you can train your family to expect almost nothing from you. It goes right along with that sad truth that babies don’t cry once they’ve learned no one will answer them.

The fruit of turning away is division, not only of families, but of ourselves when we begin to see people we love as obstacles, when we turn away from our gifts, and seek imaginary treasures elsewhere. It upsets our sense of satisfaction with reality.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt an intermittent and fleeting panic that I need to get out and get away. I’m going to have a baby any minute now, and it might be my last chance. I’ll be nursing for at least a year, maybe more, and I’ll not be alone in the way I like to be alone for a long time.

As things played out, we spent most of the holidays with just our immediate family at home. We had a couple big family gatherings, but sickness and my lack of energy undercut any New Year’s revelry we might have planned. Instead, we played Scrabble with the kids, and watched the ball drop, had a sip of Champagne and called it a night.

It took more work than walking out the door to make the night seem special. We sat through some VERY long turns while the younger kids came up with words to put on the board, but in all, I’d call it a far more pleasant New Year than any I had as a young single person partying out on the town.

Being homebound, paradoxically, forced me to enlarge my world a little. Rather than orchestrating MY last gas, we made a party that included all these other people that I have been partially responsible for bringing into the world. And in order to make it different from every other day of my life that I’ve spent with them, I challenged myself to really look, to study and make these children familiar to me again, if not any less mysterious. It’s one thing to live in close proximity to them, but another to develop some degree of intimacy as a family.

We are in a little window here with our kids as they are blossoming in maturity and personality, and they don’t hate us yet, or have their own plans. I’ve heard it mentioned many times before that the goal of having children and raising a family, aside from sanctifying all of its members, is to actually like the people you live with. It’s a blessing to realize all over again that you not only love your kids for being your own, but that you like them for being themselves.

It would be easy to accidentally miss out on this time. Needing some time alone is not a sin, after all, and spending some time alone with one’s spouse is a definite good. The challenge is knowing when to give up the ghost, when desiring a good becomes a quest for something unattainable or that irresistible turning away from “some manner of beauty.”

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About Elizabeth Duffy