During our summer of lock-down, I realised that there are certain works of fiction which it was probably best to avoid when we were all feeling a bit wobbly and some of us decidedly isolated and lonely. I had already reached that conclusion by the end of August when I watched the 2017 film Passengers.
5 000 people are in the suspended animation of hibernation on board a gigantic spacecraft bound for a far-off planet which they are to colonise. A technical malfunction in the automated system results in one Passenger being woken 90 years too soon. He finds himself alone on a vast star-ship, with the seemingly inevitable prospect of spending the rest of his life with no possibility of any human contact. This Passenger could be the most isolated and lonely human being who has ever lived; and he finds little consolation when he discovers that he does have the company of a rather creepy android bar-tender, a robot who keeps him very well supplied with whisky.
For those who found themselves isolated by necessary shielding in the past few months, that was probably not the ideal film to choose as relaxing and inspiring summer entertainment, even though (Spoiler Alert!) the very last scene of this film can most easily be interpreted as an affirmation of the innate positivity ingrained in the human condition. I would put it like that rather than say it has a happy ending.
Through lock-down, lots of people were talking about feeling isolated and about missing all sorts of points of contact with family and friends. That has continued into this term when many have been finding University life stressful, exhausting and debilitating. A lot of people are currently feeling at least a little bit like that lone Passenger.
In contrast to our current experience, many spiritual traditions value the idea of ‘retreat’, taking ourselves away from the familiar and withdrawing into solitude in order to listen without distraction or defence. We can find opportunity for new understanding and awareness and growth by relying only on our own resources and resilience. The supreme example of that in the Christian traditions is the Temptations of Jesus. For forty days Jesus has contact only with the Holy Spirit and with the devil. And I wonder, when it really comes down to it, which is more terrifying to be left alone with?!
If you want a good piece of fiction to illustrate this, try a novel by Jim Crace called Quarantine. This probably is a good one to read in a lock-down. Five people go into the desert to make a retreat, each in search of the way forward for their life’s path. They happen to choose the same time and place that Jesus has chosen to enter the desert for 40 days. Jesus takes himself to an inaccessible cave half way down a cliff. The five others are not able to have any direct contact with him, but (Spoiler Alert!) they are each able to receive what they need from their retreat merely through knowing that Jesus is there.
Those are two very different types of solitude and isolation. One is enforced, through a malfunction on a star-ship or through pandemic lock-down. That type of isolation can be very debilitating and destructive. The other type can be very constructive, when solitude is taken on voluntarily, when one knows that the time is right to learn more about yourself in order to grow as a person and to find vision and clarity and establish commitment for the way ahead.
For some months now, we have all found ourselves in a situation which none of us chose; lock-down, Rule of 6, all the other restrictions, are given to us. So how can we react healthily? This is a resume of what the psychologists and counsellors seem to be saying at the moment:
Firstly: Nurture yourself. Even among all the restrictions, find something that you enjoy. Look after yourself. Get enough sleep. Give yourself a treat. Eat something special, but not too much; keep it healthy! Remember that it is not only OK but absolutely necessary to do whatever keeps you positive. Nurture yourself.
Then: Expect less. Admit that our present surreal circumstances are tiring; in recent times I have often replied to ‘How are you?’ by saying ‘Exhausted’! Yes, there are still deadlines for essays and assignments and for marking and giving feedback and filling in forms, but recognise your limits of time and energy and inner resources. Expect less.
Next: Stay in touch. Particularly for us extroverts, Zoom and Teams and Facebook and WhatsApp are not the same as the Real Thing, but they may be the best we can get at the moment. Accept that they will have to do. Stay in touch.
Then: Live the “Both/And”. Admit we are all mixed up at the moment. We can say at the same time, “I’m not feeling OK today” and “I’m resilient enough to get through today.” Admit that it’s difficult and we are going to make it to The Promised Land on The Other Side. So it is okay to contradict yourself. Embrace paradox. Live the “Both/And”.
Finally: Take notice. Treasure Moments with a capital M that come your way, particularly the unexpected. For instance: my preferred route to walk from home to Campus takes me across a bridge over Finchett’s Gutter, the delightfully named little stream which hides immediately beyond the car park on the far side of the Sports Hall. A couple of days ago I got to the bridge. Suddenly, barely a couple of yards away, there was a flash of bright blue. Just as I realised who I had disturbed, the kingfisher was gone, out of sight along the stream. That made my day. So be aware of surprises, of beauty, of kindness. Cultivate your sense of wonder. Live in awe of what is around us and within us. Take notice.