Isolation blues

I wrote a song a long time ago, never really performed, a samba called “Choosing Lonely.” It was about feeling lonely, specifically lonely for love, but in my typically analytical mind-set, I framed it as a choice: It’s all in how you see it:

Choosing/To be lonely/When you’re only alone/That’s a foolish game…

That came to mind this afternoon, as I was missing someone in particular, and craving the closeness we share – when we can be together. Which isn’t often, and not at all these days.

I am very social person, probably an extrovert, but I’m also someone who treasures his time alone. I definitely feed off the energy of others, which is the definition of an extrovert (introverts become drained by interaction with others); but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to get as much alone time as possible. In fact, I rate the quality of my time with others (ie, in relationship) by the simple metric of whether or not we can be alone together and sit and read or write while the other does the same, in the same room.

Very handy in a studio apartment. Or in forced quarantine.

I’ve been hearing about studies, pre-COVID19, that claimed to find that more than half of American adults describe themselves as lonely. It’s not an old age thing, either: While just more than 50 percent of people over 65 said that, the rate of people between 18 and 34 who said they were lonely was more than 60 percent!!

It made me wonder what people mean by “lonely.” It’s not just about being alone. I have had times when I’m alone in a foreign country, haven’t spoken to anyone at length for several days. but I don’t feel lonely – at least not always. I’ve had times when I felt extremely lonely in the same situation, but I’ve also felt lonely, to a degree, in a crowd. Hell, I’ve felt lonely in a relationship!

But these days, many of us are feeling a strange sort of lonely. I have been blessed by good friends, and now family, with a place to stay, so I’ve had lots of company. I’ve even felt happy that I don’t have my own place, because I feel as though that would feel much more isolated. I am enjoying the company, and I spend much of each day alone, first writing, then walking. Evenings are a bit more social. And I love my quaranteam.

BuI feel awful for those who are alone, isolated – more, that is, than usual. I try to call those who I know are alone, near and far, but I also know that it’s a bandage on a much deeper wound, and perhaps a wound that won’t heal for some time. But reaching out helps, to a degree, I hope. Worth doing.

But I’m also wondering if this isn’t a situation in which a hidden problem, covered up by our usual busy-ness, is suddenly laid bare. Deeper things are being revealed in this crisis, and one revelation might be the degree to which so many of us are alone.

Being alone is great, if you want it, but it’s as bad as smoking cigarettes (from a health perspective) if you don’t. We are social creatures, our health depends on connection. I wonder if we’re not seeding a whole new mental health crisis with this self-isolating. It’s a vast social experiment, and we don’t know where it will take us.

I’m definitely feeling the lack of PHYSICAL connection. Other kinds of connection are plentiful, and shifting to more FaceTime has made a difference. But touch…that’s something no technology can (yet) emulate. And that is what I’m lonely for. I’m a hugger, and I miss that. Plus: Special Hugs. DEEP hugs. I really miss that.

I don’t think that the reality that we’re in has really sunk in; certainly, millions of people are still in denial about it, some in defiant denial. But even those of us who see the value of the shelter-in-place approach (it’s not really quarantine) don’t really have a grip yet on what we’re facing. On how long this could last. On how many years, not months, it could last. A vaccine is by no means a sure thing; and how the virus would affect each of us is unknown, no matter our age or health.

As we gradually open back up, with no real degree of safety, but just opening up because we simply have to, we’re going to have to start making crucial, painful, physical distinctions. We’re going to have to start figuring out who is safe and who isn’t. We’re going to have to vet, even if silently, who we’re willing to open up to – and who we’re not.

This is going to be a social challenge of great subtlety, and a lot of people aren’t going to be capable of finessing it, and that’s literally going to cause more sickness and death. People who aren’t able to thread this needle could end up inadvertently sickening and even killing people they love. We can already tell this by the number of people who are in denial, who are simply refusing to face this choice, or make even small concessions, like masks.

This is going to be an enormous, ongoing challenge. But it can be a good thing, or at least a not-so-terrible thing, if we can manage to be more deliberate, more discriminating, in who we share space with. Isolation isn’t sustainable, though I’m still (relatively) fine with it – for now. But we need to open up, too, and we will need to be careful, and we will have to be smart, for a lot longer than any of us, including those of us not in denial, can stomach.

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

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David Watts Barton

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