What the Corona Virus Teaches Us About Our Intolerance of Solitude

The pandemic, like a skilled diagnostician, has exposed many areas of sickness within our country that go beyond a fever, dry cough, and pneumonia-like symptoms. As with the high, penetrating resolution of an MRI, COVID-19 has lain bare and exposed many of our vulnerabilities – notably, our intolerance of solitude and making the most of our own company. Unfortunately, without a change of heart, the pathology of our inability to endure times of solitude will outlive the virus itself.

If you have kept up with the news, you all know in the interest of public health, many municipalities – states and cities, have decreed “shelter-in-place,” mandates. Clearly these were enacted in order to truncate the spread of the highly virulent corona virus. While it appears hopeful that the dreadful COVID-19 curve is flattening (thanks to social distancing practices), many have expressed concern that the “cure” for the pandemic is in fact worse than the syndrome itself. The President is concerned with job losses, while mental health officials are worried about the depression and anxiety that accompanies “social isolation.”

In an article by the American Psychological Association, it was reported that social isolation can increase the health risks of people as much as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.1 Other studies have linked prolonged social isolation with the onset of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and even obesity.2 As if the physical syndromes were not bad enough, mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression, and cognitive impairment can also be triggered by prolonged loneliness.

The concern for prolonged social isolation is understandable; what is remarkable is all the attention it is receiving because of those who have only had to shelter-in-place for a few weeks at the very most. A mere three or four days into the order I became aware of many who through social media expressed complaints of “boredom,” “depression,” “anxiety,” and lack of things to do in their own homes – with their own family members, I might add.

The biggest and most public complainants are the Hollywood elites, who, from the comfort of their mansions - and with family present - have assailed their social media followers with woeful tales of boredom and loneliness. In the midst of a virulent contagion, do we really need to hear from Madonna on how to cope while under house arrest?

Some have opined that humans dispossess the mental tools to manage this kind of “isolation.” Now, remember, for most areas the order is merely one or two weeks old.

I would argue that not only do we possess the tools for managing periods of isolation, but human history is replete with examples of people doing so regularly. Consider the lives up until about 100 years ago, of people living in northern temperate zones. It was not unusual for a Wisconsin family (remember Laura Ingalls Wilder?) to be holed up in their houses for months at a time, enduring punishing winters. The difference was they were prepared for this type of seasonal isolation, passing the time with handcrafts, reading, playing table-top games, and family devotions.

Recognizing then, that humans have some modicum for managing periods of solitude, what is it about our own culture that we have developed such intolerance for it? There are certainly many factors: some would argue the institution of public education, and others the impact of media.

John Taylor Gatto, American author and award-winning school teacher, in his book,3 Dumbing Us Down – The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, argues that the consequences of public education are such that the institution of family has been undermined, and children have no tolerance for solitude – for spending time with their own thoughts. Children are not only tied up during the school day (imbibing the toxic and hidden curricula according to Gatto), away from family and their own thoughts, but are occupied at home as well - during the evening hours with intrusive homework. The overreaching arms of public education then, puts a stranglehold on family life, and prohibits students from entertaining themselves with hobbies, interests, and subjects they are passionate about. (These two factors are the reasons many people homeschool.)

Interestingly, Gatto wrote this before the age of the smart phone. One could maintain that media accomplishes many of the same things that Gatto charged public schools with doing. After all, how many times have we witnessed family members together, not conversing with one another, but gazing at and swiping with rapt attention their cell phones? And, in our own attempts to drown out the sounds of our own musings, do we not just simply pop in earbuds?

Likely media and education both have their part to play in our intolerance of solitude, but they do not explain everything. Maybe, just maybe, because too many of us are troubled at our own thoughts, we avoid solitude like the plague (or COVID-19), making orders to shelter-in-place all the more distressing.

It’s instructive to remember, however, that when Jesus walked the earth, he often retreated from the company of friends and crowds into quiet solitude. In our own times of duress, let’s not forget that in the night of his passion and terror, when Jesus certainly felt most vulnerable, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed in solitude - in the company of his family, his Father.

Notes

1. https://www.apa.org/education/ce/social-isolation.pdf

2. https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2017/09/loneliness-sick

3. Gatto, J. T. (2002). Dumbing us down: The hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. New Society Publishers.

Emily has had a lifelong appreciation for science, teaching, and research. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno with a BS degree in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted summer research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics; she also published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and co-authored a chapter on scanning tunneling microscopy. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in Instructional Design and Technology at University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Emily has had the joy of teaching high school chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, anatomy & physiology, and pre-engineering classes over the last thirteen years. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily enjoys stating the case for intellectual agency, considering the arguments posited by the intelligent design movement as much more credible than those proffered by Darwinists.

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