Suddenly my only company is, unbelievably, just me. I am by myself, dawn to dusk, mostly in my home. The occasional exception is a walk through the woods. I visit nobody and nobody visits me. The current crisis makes us all potential carriers of a virus, and we are advised to stay by ourselves. Most stay home, except the doltish few who enjoy the adventure of breaking a rule. Or the credulous many who seek the collective solace of a temple, mosque or church. It is not clear why, when the almighty has amply blessed us all with a blight, he would quixotically exempt a few faithful.
When it started, the seclusion seemed like a pleasant change, like an unexpected vacation. No rush to work every morning, no waiting for a weekend respite. Every day is a holiday. Even those who have to work online felt the onset on a relaxed schedule. The newness began to pall in a few days. Friends called and spoke of their confinement with impatience. Acquaintances who don’t usually call called to chat and to express their hope for an early release. I suspect they hoped to hear an optimistic word, but I had none. I understood their itch for I feel it myself.
I don’t know how long I need to be with myself. It may turn out to be the longest period in my life when I have lived virtually alone. I had once spent ten days without speaking, but that does not count at all. I was in a group of other people who were doing the same and we had the silent company of others. This may be an extended period of flying solo, not just without talking to others face-to-face but also without fraternization of any kind.
I am a moderately social person, and this does not come easily to me. But I am beginning to see why this may not be a fruitless experience.
When I did not speak for over a week, I experienced, I believe for the first time, the true value of speaking. We speak not just to call a cab or order a sandwich, nor even chat with a colleague, but essentially to establish a link with another person. Most of the time that does not happen. That does mean that is not the real purpose of speaking. It only means we don’t remember the real purpose and use it only for secondary purposes. The real end of a conversation, even when it appears as a mere exchange of trivial information, is to start or sustain a genuine nexus between two humans, even where the other person is a cab driver or a sandwich server. Much the same way as I glimpse the value of words when I edit my own writing and find my mistakes, I found in that retreat how not to speak – however often I fail that standard.
When I am isolated from others for two to six weeks – still hoping that it would not continue beyond that – perhaps I will see the real meaning of true interaction. Surely there is in life a place for frivolous conversation or social talk at a cocktail party. There is too a respectable place for lighthearted engagement, whose only purpose is diversion, the pleasure of being with another person I care for or who cares for me. But, when all interaction is taboo, you begin to understand how important it is to tell others in your life how important they are to you, what a huge contribution they make to your daily existence, what significance they give to your place in the universe. It is amazing how the most important things go unsaid. I have sometimes pondered if I have ever told a daughter or a close friend the most critical thing I would have liked to tell them – and have seldom come up with a happy answer.
You need isolation to think. A person alone could be a thinking person; a person thinking is invariably alone. You need solitude, but solitude is measured not by yards or miles, but by the space you place between you and ‘others’ – people or things. Alone, you don’t have to please others or think about what others think of you. You just can be you. There is no companion as companionable as yourself.
Solitude is a state of mind than a physical state. But when the physical situation imitates that state of mind, the world is giving you a great opportunity to break out of your bubble and ask yourself the questions you have avoided for a long time, maybe a lifetime. It may be your only chance in life to face who you are, what you are – beside being just a teacher, a mother, a doctor, a husband, a clerk, a daughter, a whatever insignificant or grand. The only chance to be a safe, sane, sound island that has finally found itself.