For me, one scene captures the manifold tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic. A friend named Dan was already suffering from Lewy body dementia, a brain disorder that affects thinking and reasoning as well as muscle control. Once a college football hero, now Dan could no longer negotiate steps or even figure out how to sit in a chair. After several years of loving care, his wife reluctantly had to move him into a memory care facility, which she visited every day.
Then the coronavirus crisis hit, and the facility closed its doors to all visitors in order to protect the vulnerable residents inside. Dan’s wife still visits faithfully. She stands outside his sealed window and talks to him on a cell phone, trying to explain to her uncomprehending husband why she can no longer be with him.
We see the daily statistics of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths caused by the pandemic, but we can’t foresee the long-term effects of isolation. A 2017 study cited by the Surgeon General concluded that “Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and the problem is particularly acute among seniors.” Yet as stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders have been imposed, loosened, and then in many places reimposed, millions of us have undergone long periods of enforced isolation.
As a young journalist, I once accompanied a group of federal prisoners whose good behavior qualified them for an experimental program modeled after Outward Bound. They loved the interlude of two weeks of freedom in the wilds of northern Wisconsin, and happily accepted the challenge of grueling hikes, rappelling, rock climbing, and even a marathon run. The program was designed to end with a “solo,” assigning each prisoner a small island on which to spend three days meditating, writing in a journal, and living off the land. Normally a highlight for Outward Bound participants, this assignment sparked a mutiny by the prisoners. They knew solitary confinement as the worst form of punishment and could not bear the thought of solitude.
“It’s one thing when you choose to be alone,” one of the prisoners told me, “but I ain’t gonna let anybody force me to do that.” Their seasoned wilderness guide proved no match for ten angry prisoners and had to cancel the planned three-day solo.
Apart from essential workers, nearly all of us have experienced a form of solitude exacted by the coronavirus. In this strange new world, grandparents show their love by avoiding contact with their grandchildren, and hospitalized family members die alone in quarantine. We have learned that although the Internet may allow a virtual connection through FaceTime, Zoom, and other platforms, it makes a poor substitute for physical presence.
As a writer who works at home, I am well acquainted with solitude. Early in the crisis, feeling disconnected from the rapidly changing world outside, I filled every moment with news reports and podcasts, as if sending out feelers to remind myself I was still part of humanity and shared its plight. Eventually, I felt burdened by the constant reminders of events over which I had no control and decided instead to unplug. I took long hikes in the Rocky Mountains where I live. I started reading poetry, mostly W. H. Auden and Mary Oliver and adjusted to the slower, quieter pace that poetry demands. And I looked to others who had mastered the art of solitude. Can anything good come from an involuntary state of isolation?
I turned first to Daniel Defoe, who lived through London’s great bubonic plague of 1665 and wrote about it in A Journal of a Plague Year. I also reread Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe, about a wealthy Englishman on a sea voyage who experiences a shipwreck, and somehow emerges as the sole survivor. A castaway, he has to carve out a life for himself on a tropical island.
The new circumstances force Crusoe to change his values. Luxury goods and gold, which he once sought like a drug, are useless on the island. With no one else to rely on, he must use his own resourcefulness to fashion what he needs to live. In the process, Crusoe undergoes a spiritual crisis. He reads the Bible, one of the few books he managed to retrieve from the wreck. Burdened with guilt, he reexamines his life of selfishness and oppression—he had, after all, gone to sea in order to secure slaves for Brazilian plantations.
Gradually Crusoe develops a sense of gratitude for the simple things of life, such as a good day’s work, his faithful dog, or birds singing in the stately trees all around him. When finally rescued, Crusoe is a changed man. He reflects, “I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts, that I cannot express them…” He has learned a profound lesson, that “all our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.”
Some three centuries later, COVID-19 has taught us a similar lesson. It’s possible to get along without professional sports and entertainment, and all but the most necessary shopping. Good health ranks as the highest value, with the love of family and friends running a close second.
During the coronavirus pandemic, National Geographic magazine featured a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, an Italian named Mauro Morandi, whose crippled catamaran washed up on the shores of Budelli Island, an uninhabited speck in the Mediterranean. He volunteered to become caretaker of the island, where he has now lived for 31 years. Morandi spends his time reading, studying botany and biology, and showing the occasional tourist around. He learned photography and currently boasts more than 30,000 followers on Instagram. When the government ordered him to leave the island, ordinary Italians rose up in protest and helped to overturn the order.
We have other examples of individuals who sought a counter-cultural way of life through voluntary solitude. Henry David Thoreau perfected a peculiarly American blend of asceticism, love of nature, and self-reliance. He reflected, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” One of his friends remarked that Thoreau could get more out of ten minutes with a chickadee than most men could get out of a night with Cleopatra.
A thirst for voluntary solitude seems to awaken when society is going through turmoil. Jewish Essenes retreated into caves in Jesus’ day; the Buddha withdrew in order to purge himself of social illusions; the Hindu Gandhi observed a regimen of withdrawal and strict silence on Mondays, a practice he would not interrupt even for meetings with the King of England. Elijah, Moses, and Jacob met God alone. The Apostle Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself escaped to the wilderness for spiritual nourishment.
The book Hermits, by Peter France, profiles people both secular and religious who retreat to caves, hermitages, and the desert to live in intentional solitude. France ultimately abandoned his successful career with the BBC in order to lead a contemplative life on the Greek island of Patmos, where the apostle John had been exiled two millennia before. Living apart from the press of popular opinion, “confers insights not available to society,” France concluded.
Reading France’s accounts, I thought back to the summer I joined the federal prisoners in Wisconsin. It struck me that many of the monks and hermits profiled by France chose to live in conditions—bad food, cramped cells, solitary confinement—that the prisoners viewed as harsh punishment. One person’s prison can be another’s spiritual liberation. What makes the difference?
At the time of our wilderness experiment, a prisoner named Nelson Mandela was halfway through his prison sentence. He proved that even enforced solitude need not break a person, and may provide a time of preparation for a future calling. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island in a solitary cell measuring eight feet by seven feet, barely large enough for him to stretch out. He did pushups, shadow-boxed, and paced the cell to keep in shape. He also studied law and insisted that wardens treat him and other prisoners with dignity and respect. In the process, he developed the inner strength necessary to lead his nation through a tumultuous era.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was perhaps the best apologist for the life of solitude in recent times. He felt crowded living among other monks, even with a vow of silence, and made constant appeals for the privilege of solitude. Merton longed to join those “men on this miserable, noisy, cruel earth who tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude, who dwelt in forgotten mountain cells, in secluded monasteries, where the news and desires and appetites and conflicts of the world no longer reached them.” After 24 years, he finally got his wish, a hermitage of his own in the Kentucky woods.
Ironically, during his years of solitude, Merton became even more engaged with issues like civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and the Vietnam war. His 50 books demonstrate that a life of solitude need not lead to isolation or irrelevance. Has the modern era known a more acute observer of politics, culture, and religion than this monk who rarely spoke and rarely left the grounds of his monastery?
Merton insisted that “the only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but also other[s].” On one trip to nearby Louisville, he had an epiphany:
In the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Perhaps the highest goal of solitude would be to emerge from it, like Merton, with a renewed awareness of all we missed while shut inside our homes. An invisible virus has exposed us as fragile, dependent creatures whose differences pale in comparison to all that we have in common. Sometime in the future, we’ll look back on this year and shake our heads in wonder. I can think of no more appropriate response on that day than humble gratitude—the very quality that solitude may help us cultivate in advance.