Isolation is a foreboding word holding within itself the austere aloneness of our longing. It is a word that conjures haunting feelings of separation, loneliness, and abandonment. Confined in a state of isolation we suffer the deep internal pain of losing a sense of companionship with life.
In a deep sense, isolation reminds us that friendship, companionship, and belonging are the essence of wellbeing. We all experience periods of isolation throughout the course of life. To fully inhabit our isolation is a difficult discipline because of the depth, intimacy, and honesty it demands from us. It forces us back into the primal conversation, the one we do not want to have, in which the raw, feral, and frightening elements of being thrust themselves into the present moment.
It is self-evident that human beings are not meant to live in isolation. Solitary confinement is a severe punishment in which a prisoner is forced to endure a torturous period of stress and aloneness. Contact with others is cruelly revoked. Basic sources of stimulation are heartlessly eliminated. Interaction with the outside world is inhumanely severed. The purpose of solitary confinement is to provoke the anxiety-depression spectrum and use duration as a weapon to inflict enduring trauma. This horrific form of isolation originates the dark, murky shadows of the human condition.
However, isolation can also be an elusive, agile, and subtle presence. The “only child” that lives a solitary childhood is held within the confinement of an enduring confrontation with their aloneness. Play is a source of salvation and survival. A sand box becomes a refuge in which an imaginary world of relationship and interaction can be created. In this way, the child feels a sense of participation, friendship, and belonging. But as the child turns increasingly inward, he becomes self-centered. Eventually, he lacks the capacity to open himself to the world, a wound the child carries into adulthood.
Sometimes the confluence of situations and circumstances comprising everyday life conspire to impose an unanticipated period of isolation. This can happen when a relationship breaks down or when we suffer an unexpected loss. Sometimes endings arrive before we are ready for them. When a comfortable and familiar pattern of living ends, we must undertake the challenging work of re-imaging how to engage meaningfully with life. Initially, we may feel a sense of longing to return to the old ways. A desire to return to normal is a natural response to the loss of our internal narrative. However, normal is a creature that rides the winds of change; it can never be caught and held in place. To liberate ourselves from a period of isolation, we must accept that the normal we desire no longer exists and then courageously turn toward the unknown and take our rightful place on that mercurial threshold between what once was and the mystery of what lies ahead.
Strangely, we can feel isolated in the company of others. We can feel alone in a relationship, our work, or in a crowded coffee shop. We can drive ourselves to the brink of exhaustion through incessant busyness while utterly failing to assuage the feelings of loneliness moving deep within. We can impose arduous routines and patterns of living on ourselves while feeling less productive. And we can achieve financial security without feeling successful. This happens when our current course in life lacks meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. It is symptomatic of an internal state of isolation and the estrangement caused by an unlived life.
Isolation, however, can be a necessary discipline. Traumatized by threat of a pandemic, we are forced to grapple with those strange aggregates, “self-isolation,” “physical distancing,” and “social bubbles.” In the early days of Covid-19 we were told to stay at home and limit interaction with others to “reduce the spread” of the contagion. Feeling trapped by an invisible threat, our normal modes of interaction and engagement within the community suddenly vanished. And our pent-up tension, stress and anxiety went viral.
Today, six months into the pandemic, we are all liminal beings walking on the cracked, angular ground of uncertainty. Now we all stand together on a threshold isolated “betwixt and between” what once was and what has yet to reveal itself. Ambiguity permeates the air we breathe. The familiar patterns of living we once knew are memories. Adaptation, as it always has been, is the only way to embrace the wisdom of the collective isolation that is upon us.