Alone in a room

As parts of the world are going into a new period of isolation to fight the pandemic, I look at how life has changed and the upside of isolation.

As we withdraw from each other in the flesh, we may begin to appreciate better what we had until so recently: friendship and love made manifest by being together, simple gifts like a shared joint, a head resting on your shoulder, a hand squeezed, a toast raised. And in this sudden stop, we will also hear the sounds of nature — as our economic machine pauses for a moment and the contest for status or fame or money is canceled for just a while. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal said. Well, we’ll be able to test that now, won’t we?

Andrew Sullivan – How to Survive a Plague

What are the things we cannot live without?

Well, we may be forced to redefine that list. And maybe realize that some things we thought we need are dispensable. Or even that we are better off without them.

For all its disadvantages, isolation gives us the opportunity to pause and just notice. To see the aimless agitation, the moments when we’re simply not there.

We’re not there because we are too busy distracting ourselves.

The first step is to recognize that some of what passes for activity is just distraction. The second one is to ask what we’re trying to distract ourselves from. This may take a while, because it’s about facing things what we fought to keep away at all costs. It’s about facing one’s demons.

Is it loneliness? Anger? Shame? Old wounds that never healed? Lack of purpose and meaning? Whatever it is, it’s haunting us. Did we ever turn back to face it?

In one of her books, Pema Chodron talks about a friend of hers who had frequent nightmares. In her dreams, she was repeatedly chased by monsters. Often, in a desperate attempt to escape, she would enter a room and close the door behind her, only to hear the monsters break down the door and get closer. She was waking up screaming. This happened over and over again.

Pema asked her friend how these monsters looked like. To her own surprise, her friend realized that she could never bring herself to turn and look at the things chasing her. 

But this realisation stayed with her and it slowly permeated into her dreams. The next time she found herself trying to get away from the monsters, once she entered the room where monsters were usually following her she turned around. 

The monsters were there. For the first time, she could observe each of them. They were jumping up and down in front of her, but they were keeping distance as if held back by an invisible force field. They were scary but somehow not nearly as scary as they seemed before, when they were just a menacing presence without a face. In fact, the more she was looking at them, the less frightening they seemed. She remembers saying to herself in the dream that they look a bit like cartoon characters.

Then she woke up and the nightmares stopped.