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No man is an island. (John Donne)
One of our greatest losses during the coronavirus should point us to what our greatest gain can be once this crisis is over.
In the wake of the coronavirus, with the devastating effects of death, unemployment, and economic downturn, another painful side-effect is social isolation.
Our emotional life is one that is as important as our bodily life because it applies to the soul. As C.S. Lewis said, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” In the rush to encourage social isolation to preserve bodily health — while justified — a negative byproduct has been emotional suffering. Stay-at-home orders and shelter in place leave social life upended: no school in the classroom, no playing in the park, no celebrations like graduations, no religious gatherings at a most holy time of year, no coworker chats in the breakroom, no visits to elderly relatives, no shared meals, no hugs with friends.
The late Roger Scruton makes the following point about how emotional life is of the utmost importance:
We are animals certainly; but we are also incarnate persons, with cognitive capacities that are not shared by the other animals and which endow us with an entirely distinctive emotional life.
Our emotional life makes loneliness one of life's greatest punishments. We all remember the sting of childhood social isolation with “timeout” or “go to your room.”
This sad feeling of being separated from the group is timeless. In Dostoyevsky’s 19th-century novel The Idiot, a punishment for a small offense is that paying house visits to family friends are forbidden; although a brief moment in the story, it was the greatest
disappointment for the characters. These small scale pangs of isolation show the toll it takes on the human spirit. The story of POW survivor, Captain Charlie Plumb, paints a more dramatic picture of social isolation and the power of human connection. He spent
2,103 days in VietCong prison camp. Over the 6-year period Plumb was subjected to the most vicious torture methods in conjunction with solitary confinement. He was kept in nothing but an 8-by-8 foot cell. It wasn’t until he made contact with a fellow soldier
that he found encouragement — the man exhorted him to be a warrior. This human contact sparked hope in the heart of Plumb. He credited his survival to that moment of exhortation and his “value system, integrity, and religious faith.” He speaks of overcoming his severe depression from both the physical and emotional abuse, and declares that the power to hope lies in finding value in adversity:
Adversity is a horrible thing to waste. A lot of people will pity themselves or blame other people in those difficult situations. But I encourage you to really take on and accept that adversity in your life.
While most of us have never faced the adversity of social isolation akin to a prisoner of war camp, this unprecedented time of quarantine has left many feeling traumatized from the uncertainty of self-isolation, financial insecurity, and for some, the death of loved ones.
Before the pandemic, a national survey revealed that most American adults 18 and over consider themselves lonely, and for the first time in history the youngest generation surveyed as the loneliest of all. Although at first glance a surprising statistic, is it really? I think of how many times I have seen a family dining out sitting “together” but absorbed with their digital devices rather than enjoying one another’s company. I think of dating stories I’ve heard of people getting “ghosted” instead of being given a common courtesy goodbye. I think of a young man who was by all accounts normal and had a promising career in a high level of finance. He texted several friends who were in town to get together one evening and no one texted back. He committed suicide later that night.
Maybe this terrible time will give us pause and reflect on the dangerous metamorphosis we have made as a society. We live in the most connected time in history (this virus is even further proof) and yet in many ways we have never been more disconnected. Our virtual “communities” that are often used for only showing our public self are hollow forums — cheap replacements for in-person human connection.
Elke Van Hoof, Professor of health psychology and primary care psychology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, has referred to the lockdown as “the biggest psychological experiment” and forecasts a secondary epidemic of emotional burnout and stress-induced trauma for the remainder of 2020. The study underscores the observed effects of quarantine:
People who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.
The bad fruits of being cut off from community relates to the Greek myth of Narcissus: he gazes in admiration at his own image in a reflection pool, and not realizing it is his own reflection, he falls in love with it, and in the earliest version of the tale, he eventually loses his will to live and ends his life. This ancient tale has applicable truth for the modern age. We are not meant to be alone and insulated from the dynamic nature of relationships.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church supports this truth:
The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation. (CCC 1879)
The narcissistic tendencies of self-absorption, radical independence, and emotional disconnectedness shrivel our hearts, thwart vocations, extinguish irreplaceable life. What if God allowed this time of great tribulation to serve as a splash in our reflection
pool? Something to wake us from the postmodern dictates of self-focus and over-scheduled regimens, and call us to look up to him.
The answer to recovery will not be going back to business as usual. The answer is not in humanistic tropes. The answer is in the Resurrection: to roll the stone away from our individual hearts. In the face of deaths we have experienced, whether it be the loss of loved ones, our livelihood, or lifestyle, Christ will raise us up. As difficult as it may be, this adversity should call each Catholic to have a transformative change of heart — a metanoia — drawing us back towards God with renewed fervor, and then outward to connect with our “neighbor” in more intentional ways, for love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable.
Think of how beautiful it will be to gather together again. It’s a time to appreciate what we had previously taken for granted. So reach out to a relative and do it often; repair a broken relationship; ask someone on a date; pay a visit to a friend who lives alone and bring fresh flowers; make cookies with your children; eat dinner as a family without media; start a group Bible study; host a supper club.
Could some of these social overtures be awkward? Yes. But so is wearing a mask in public and many of us have managed to do that.
As we come out of this darkness, be reminded of what is worth living — and dying for — God and our fellow man.
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Copyright 2020 Catherine Fowler Sample
About the author: Catherine Fowler Sample wrote and produced the award-winning documentary, The Dating Project. Her upcoming book, Gather Together: Recipes and Reflections to Inspire Faith and Friendship around the Table (Ave Maria Press) will release Fall 2020.
“Captain Charlie Plumb: Pilot, POW, Survivor.” Throomers, April 27, 2019.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019.
Firestone, Lisa. “Why Millennials Are So Lonely.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, September 18, 2019.
Nassiri, Justin. “BTU #294 - Advice from a Prisoner of War (Charlie Plumb).” Beyond the Uniform. Beyond the Uniform, August 1, 2019.
Robinson, Bryan. “What Will It Be Like When the Lockdown Lifts?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, April 15, 2020.
Scruton, Roger. On Human Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.
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