We like to spend time with ourselves, but how long? After a time, loneliness wears on us. We become irritable. When no one shares our irritation we feel depressed, we feel self-centred, we become lonelier. On top of it when there is quarantine?
Quarantine upsets normal social rhythms. There is a feeling of less connectedness. Frequently washing hands, wiping down surfaces makes one suspect of oneself.
“All humanity’s problem stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blais Pascal in the seventeenth century.
It is not easy to sit alone in a room. More difficult is to sit, quarantined. Sitting alone, quarantined, is one thing, quarantined with the family is another.
Pascal said that we are afraid of silence. We choose aimless distractions, to avoid boredom. When we can’t face the problems of our emotions we get into the trap of false comforts of the mind. We haven’t learnt the art of solitude. “We now live in a world where we’re connected to everything except ourselves.” We are addicted to ‘outside’ rather than ‘inside’. We dread the nothingness of nothing. We dread facing ourselves. We don’t want to resolve our internal conflicts. In spite of being so intimately connected to everything else around us we feel lonely. What connects simultaneously isolates us. We begin to love being distracted. We always want to do something. Slowly we become averse to simply being.
Being alone and connecting inwardly is a skill nobody teaches us. We have to learn it ourselves. We have to learn to face fear. We have to think more about our interactions with others. Changing the way of thinking of others helps. Ability to explain is a great leveller. The best way to learn is to teach. Meditation is a process of seeking. It manages one’s internal crisis. It is a process of observing without judgment. It is a process of becoming comfortable in silence. It is a process of making one a better version of oneself.
People hate being alone. They hate to be with their thoughts. A study says, people hate to spend even 15 minutes in a room doing nothing with them but think. They don’t like to spend time in ‘inward-directed thought’ even when they are not busy. They don’t want to spend anythime in ‘just thinking’. The urge to immerse our attention in external things is so instinctive that we're scarcely aware of it, Steve Taylor writes. “We often speak of emails, tweets and texts as if they're annoyances that we'd eliminate if we could. Yet the truth, of course, is that half the time we're desperate to be distracted, and gladly embrace the interruption,” writes Oliver Burkeman. We think we are trapped in our heads. But this is our mistake to think so. We are losing faith in our thoughts. Outside world is more interesting for us.
Henry David Thoreau, a loner, wrote “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in a state of rural semi-self-quarantine. Thoreau experimented with self-isolation. “Thoreau created from it: constructive solitude,” writes Bianca Salonga. It was not enforced isolation. “And his apartness was far from total. He went into Concord several times a week to catch up on gossip and have dinner with his relatives.” Social distancing came naturally to him. His retreat was a refuge from “the noise of my contemporaries.” He found his retreat “as a place of opportunity where he could do what he could not easily do in the everyday world: namely, concentrate, focus,…” He writes, “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.” He wanted to be in the Nature with his antennas raised. (Source: Holland Cotter, Lessons in constructive solitude, NYT, April 9, 2020).
Times Higher Education in one of its recent issues (22 APRIL 2020) writes, “Most countries around the world have sought expert guidance from scientists during the coronavirus crisis – but in Germany philosophers, historians, theologians and jurists are now also playing a major role in advising federal and regional governments on issues around lockdown measures. The country has tapped into the expertise of humanities scholars to navigate the delicate ethical balancing act of reopening society while still preserving life.”
We are social species. Social distancing, therefore, is not a natural phenomenon for us. Quarantined, we are expected to avoid large gatherings and close contact with others. We are expected to suppress our ‘evolutionarily hardwired impulses for connection’. It is not easy. But it is the requirement of the time.
Social distancing and its potential social and psychological impact are being studied. Several questions are raised. George Miller (Science March 16, 2020) writes,” Social distancing prevents infections, but it can have unintended consequences.” Some observations are:
• Social isolation can increase the risk of a variety of health problems.
• Social contacts buffer the negative effects of stress. “Just knowing that you have someone you can count on if needed is enough to dampen some of those responses even if [that person is] not physically present.”
• Awareness of these issues will prompt people to stay connected and take positive action.
• Older people may be more susceptible.
• Ability to handle social isolation and stress vary among the individuals. “Someone who is already having problems with, say, social anxiety, depression, loneliness, substance abuse, or other health problems is going to be particularly vulnerable.”
• Optimism, the belief that war would eventually be won no matter how bad the things go, is very important.
• Technologies help people keeping in touch. But face-to-face interaction is a different matter. There is nothing like eye contact and body language.
• “Collective effervescence” (sharing emotional excitement with people)magnifies the sensation that that you’re something larger than yourself.
• Giving support can be even more beneficial than receiving it.
LANCET in one of its recent issues (https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30460-8) has reviewed the psychological impact of quarantine. The article points out several important issues related to Quarantine.
1. Quarantine (separation and restriction of movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease to ascertain if they become unwell, so reducing the risk of them infecting others) differs from isolation ( separation of people who have been diagnosed with a contagious disease from people who are not sick). However, the two terms are often used interchangeably especially in communication with the public.
2. General psychological symptoms include emotional disturbance, depression, stress, low mood, irritability, insomnia, post-traumatic stress symptoms), anger, and emotional exhaustion. Low mood and irritability stand out. After quarantine avoidance behaviours, both in patients and healthcare workers, can be seen.
3. Stressors include longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma.
4. Appeals to altruism by reminding the public about the benefits of quarantine to wider society can be favourable.
5. Longer durations of quarantine were associated with poorer mental health, specifically, post-traumatic stress symptoms, avoidance behaviours, and anger.
6. Confinement causes boredom, frustration, and a sense of isolation. Shopping and social networking exacerbated frustration. In addition, inadequate basic supplies can be the source of frustration, anxiety and anger. Shortage in public health supplies and inadequate information from public health authorities are some reasons of dissatisfaction. Lack of clarity, lack of transparency about the risk, clear guidelines and quarantine protocols are some of the predictors of post-traumatic stress symptoms.
7. Financial problem and loss of work are key post-quarantine stressors. Financial reimbursement is an issue that doesn’t make anybody happy. Work-from-home is still not an acceptable concept in many countries.
8. Stigma of quarantine is reported to be an issue. Participants in several studies reported that others were treating them differently: avoiding them, withdrawing social invitations, treating them with fear and suspicion, and making critical comments. General education about quarantine helps in the reduction of stigma.
9. Restricting the length of quarantine to what is scientifically reasonable given the known duration of incubation periods, and not adopting an overly precautionary approach to this, would minimise the effect on people.
10. Reduce the boredom and improve the communication. Ramayan and Mahabharat can be great rescuers.
11. Health-care workers deserve special attention.
12. Altruism is better than compulsion. Voluntary is better than mandatory.
13. Depriving people of their liberty for the wider public good is often contentious and needs to be handled carefully.
Let me end this note by few of my COVID verses:
Every organism alive
hosts a parasite
to make the world
a natural place
a hotbed of
I was sitting alone, yet not lonely,
in fact, I was singing, thanking
I am near myself,
to rekindle the spirit of togetherness.
"Now it is time to sit quiet,
face to face with thee,
and to dedication of life
in this silent and overflowing leisure."
I was thinking that I can think without fear.
I have courage to be independent.
I can kindle the fire inside me.
I can be with my roots.
I can let off the prisoner in me.
I can break the unbreakable chain of illusion.
I can let off the dust.
Thank god I can reach the depth of the truth.
Thank god for making moist my arid heart.
Thank god for granting time to salute my saviours.
Thank god for moving me from the centre to the corner.
Thank god for granting me space in the vast sky.
Thank god for "a moment's indulgence to sit by thy side.
The works that I have in hand I will finish afterwards."
Touch is worth a thousand words.
I am looking for her supportive touch.
I am hoping for her sympathetic touch.
Fleeting moments communicate so much.
Touch relieves pain. Touch gives assurance.
Its vibrancy is worth so much.
Rough and smooth are the stories it tells.
Touch a lonely heart with a tender hand.
What a wonderful feeling touch can be.
I am waiting for her touch.
I am waiting for the pandemic to be over.
I want to touch me, gently, without prejudice.
Once the storm is over
there will be fallen trees
among the dense leaves.
There will be silence.
There will be struggle.
There will be urgency.
Once the storm is over
struggle, urgency, silence
all will become one.
Storm is not for one.
Struggle is not for one.
Hope is not for one.
One is not alone.
Alone is an illusion.
Loss is not loss of hope.
Hope fills emptiness.
Loss gives resolve to end misery.
To end misery, there is science, there is art.
Science to reach the facts,
art to add value to the facts.
Leave what remains in the care of
the ultimate, the one
beyond the reach of one and all.