For me, one scene captures the manifold tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic. A friend named Dan was already suffering from Lewy body dementia, a brain disorder that affects thinking and reasoning as well as muscle control. Once a college football hero, now Dan could no longer negotiate steps or even figure out how to sit in a chair. After several years of loving care, his wife reluctantly had to move him into a memory care facility, which she visited every day.

Then the coronavirus crisis hit, and the facility closed its doors to all visitors in order to protect the vulnerable residents inside. Dan’s wife still visits faithfully. She stands outside his sealed window and talks to him on a cell phone, trying to explain to her uncomprehending husband why she can no longer be with him.

We see the daily statistics of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths caused by the pandemic, but we can’t foresee the long-term effects of isolation. A 2017 study cited by the Surgeon General concluded that “Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and the problem is particularly acute among seniors.” Yet as stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders have been imposed, loosened, and then in many places reimposed, millions of us have undergone long periods of enforced isolation.

As a young journalist, I once accompanied a group of federal prisoners whose good behavior qualified them for an experimental program modeled after Outward Bound. They loved the interlude of two weeks of freedom in the wilds of northern Wisconsin, and happily accepted the challenge of grueling hikes, rappelling, rock climbing, and even a marathon run.

The program was designed to end with a “solo,” assigning each prisoner a small island on which to spend three days meditating, writing in a journal, and living off the land. Normally a highlight for Outward Bound participants, this assignment sparked a mutiny by the prisoners. They knew solitary confinement as the worst form of punishment and could not bear the thought of solitude.

“It’s one thing when you choose to be alone,” one of the prisoners told me, “but I ain’t gonna let anybody force me to do that.” Their seasoned wilderness guide proved no match for ten angry prisoners, and had to cancel the planned three-day solo.

Apart from essential workers, nearly all of us have experienced a form of solitude exacted by the coronavirus. In this strange new world, grandparents show their love by avoiding contact with their grandchildren, and hospitalized family members die alone in quarantine. We have learned that although the Internet may allow a virtual connection through FaceTime, Zoom and other platforms, it makes a poor substitute for physical presence.

Covid-19 and the surprising gift of solitudeAs a writer who works at home, I am well acquainted with solitude. At the beginning of the crisis, feeling disconnected from the rapidly changing world outside, I filled every moment with news reports and podcasts, as if sending out feelers to remind myself I was still part of humanity and shared its plight. Eventually I felt burdened by the constant reminders of events over which I had no control, and decided instead to unplug. I took long hikes in the Rocky Mountains where I live. I started reading poetry, mostly W. H. Auden and Mary Oliver, and adjusted to the slower, quieter pace that poetry demands. And I looked to others who had mastered the art of solitude. Can anything good come from an involuntary state of isolation?

I turned first to Daniel Defoe, who lived through London’s great bubonic plague of 1665, and wrote about it in A Journal of a Plague Year. I also reread Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe, about a wealthy Englishman on a sea voyage who experiences a shipwreck, and somehow emerges as the sole survivor. A castaway, he has to carve out a life for himself on a tropical island.

Covid-19 and the surprising gift of solitudeThe new circumstances force Crusoe to change his values. Luxury goods and gold, which he once sought like a drug, are useless on the island. With no one else to rely on, he must use his own resourcefulness to fashion what he needs to live. In the process, Crusoe undergoes a spiritual crisis. He reads the Bible, one of the few books he managed to retrieve from the wreck. Burdened with guilt, he reexamines his life of selfishness and oppression—he had, after all, gone to sea in order to secure slaves for Brazilian plantations.

Gradually Crusoe develops a sense of gratitude for the simple things of life, such as a good day’s work, his faithful dog, or birds singing in the stately trees all around him. When finally rescued, Crusoe is a changed man. He reflects, “I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts, that I cannot express them…” He has learned a profound lesson, that “all our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.”

Some three centuries later, COVID-19 has taught us a similar lesson. It’s possible to get along without professional sports and entertainment, and all but the most necessary shopping. Good health ranks as the highest value, with the love of family and friends running a close second.

Mauro Morandi in solitudeIn the early days of the pandemic, National Geographic magazine featured a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, an Italian named Mauro Morandi, whose crippled catamaran washed up on the shores of Budelli Island, an uninhabited speck in the Mediterranean. He volunteered to become caretaker of the island, where he has now lived for 31 years.

Morandi spends his time reading, studying botany and biology, and showing the occasional tourist around. He learned photography, and currently boasts more than 50,000 followers on Instagram. When the government ordered him to leave the island, ordinary Italians rose up in protest and helped to delay the order, though he may yet be evicted.

We have other examples of individuals who sought a counter-cultural way of life through voluntary solitude. Henry David Thoreau perfected a peculiarly American blend of asceticism, love of nature, and self-reliance. He reflected, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” One of his friends remarked that Thoreau could get more out of ten minutes with a chickadee than most men could get out of a night with Cleopatra.

A thirst for voluntary solitude seems to awaken when society is going through turmoil. Jewish Essenes retreated into caves in Jesus’ day; the Buddha withdrew in order to purge himself of social illusions; the Hindu Gandhi observed a regimen of withdrawal and strict silence on Mondays, a practice he would not interrupt even for meetings with the King of England. Elijah, Moses, and Jacob met God alone. The Apostle Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself escaped to the wilderness for spiritual nourishment.

The book Hermits, by Peter France, profiles people both secular and religious who retreat to caves, hermitages, and the desert to live in intentional solitude. France ultimately abandoned his successful career with the BBC in order to lead a contemplative life on the Greek island of Patmos, where the apostle John had been exiled two millennia before. Living apart from the press of popular opinion “confers insights not available to society,” France concluded.

Reading France’s accounts, I thought back to the summer I joined the federal prisoners in Wisconsin. It struck me that many of the monks and hermits profiled by France chose to live in conditions—bad food, cramped cells, solitary confinement—that the prisoners viewed as harsh punishment. One person’s prison can be another’s spiritual liberation. What makes the difference?

At the time of our wilderness experiment, a prisoner named Nelson Mandela was halfway through his prison sentence in South Africa. He proved that even enforced solitude need not break a person, and may provide a time of preparation for a future calling. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island in a solitary cell measuring eight feet by seven feet, barely large enough for him to stretch out. He did push-ups, shadow-boxed, and paced the cell to keep in shape. He also studied law, and insisted that wardens treat him and other prisoners with dignity and respect. In the process, he developed the inner strength necessary to lead his nation through a tumultuous era.

Thomas Merton in solitudeThe Trappist monk Thomas Merton was perhaps the best apologist for the life of solitude in recent times. He felt crowded living among other monks, even with a vow of silence, and made constant appeals for the privilege of solitude. Merton longed to join those “men on this miserable, noisy, cruel earth who tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude, who dwelt in forgotten mountain cells, in secluded monasteries, where the news and desires and appetites and conflicts of the world no longer reached them.” After 24 years he finally got his wish, a hermitage of his own in the Kentucky woods.

Ironically, during his years of solitude Merton became even more engaged with issues like civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and the Vietnam war. His 50 books demonstrate that a life of solitude need not lead to isolation or irrelevance. Has the modern era known a more acute observer of politics, culture, and religion than this monk who rarely spoke and rarely left the grounds of his monastery?

Merton insisted that “the only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but also other[s].” On one trip to nearby Louisville, he had an epiphany:

…in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Perhaps the highest goal of solitude would be to emerge from it, like Merton, with a renewed awareness of all we missed while shut inside our homes. An invisible virus has exposed us as fragile, dependent creatures whose differences pale in comparison to all that we have in common. Sometime in the future, we’ll look back on this year and shake our heads in wonder. I can think of no more appropriate response on that day than humble gratitude—the very quality that solitude may help us cultivate in advance.

 

 

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33 responses to “The Surprising Gift of Solitude”

  1. Roy David Stafford says:

    When I was young my hero’s in history were, Muir, Thoreau, and Henry Beston, Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey
    In todays crumbling American society my overriding concern now is for truth and justice and if the next few years do not see a change in this country and other world governments this planet will be finished.

  2. Micol says:

    Hi Philip, I grew up reading some of your books and I sometimes go back and reread them. I’m currently handling the Instagram account of one of our church’s ministry and we usually post short daily devotionals. I was wondering if it’s alright to repost some of your blogs? if it’s alright with you.

  3. Jody Davison says:

    I am a person who craves my times of solitude on occasion, time to regroup, unwind, give thanks, get perspective, think my own thoughts, evaluate direction, where I am and where I have been and where I may be heading, am I living at peace with myself, with my God? Basically an introvert, I know I also have a stunning need for face to face interactions in order to feel alive and joyful. I am retirement age and spent six months preparing my retirement home for the coming years just before the pandemic hit the US. I had gotten bored and taken a job at a local preschool in February because I adore spending time with young children, making those one on one connections and watching them blossom from an early age. Within six weeks of starting that new job, the school shut down suddenly. I literally thought I was going to work on Monday, when I received a text saying the school had to close due to the pandemic. The only time I have cried during this pandemic is when we had the first staff meeting on zoom with my co-workers. Here were the faces of new friends that I had almost forgotten in the sudden disappearance of work. I didn’t know when or if I would see them again or if our school would be able to reopen and if it would be safe when and if that time came. Fortunately, we did open again in the summer and as a small, private school, our class size is manageable and we are all healthy at this point. We do have staff who have the virus in their homes already, and who have had to quarantine and wait two weeks for test results. The thought that little children can be exposed to this virus because staff cannot get test results quickly is disheartening in a country where we could do better if we only had the will to do it. I am so thankful for the beautiful faces of the children and teachers I work with, for the chance to see them and continue having contact. It brings me great joy! Being safe at school is of paramount importance to our families and our economy. The horse of health pulls the cart of the economy.

  4. TerryLCunningham says:

    Philip, this comes to me at at the unusual moment when I find myself in isolation due to treatment for Leukemia. 28 days now with 28 days to come. It is a small price for the temporary reprieve from the inevitable, but more I find it is exactly where my Lord would have me to consider the use of what more I am given. I very much enjoy your articles and your books. Thanks

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Bless you, Terry. Sometimes the “Surprising Gift” comes in a strange package. You have a great attitude already, and may you one day look back on this time not only as a cure, but also as a nourishing time in itself.

  5. Mark Harris says:

    All i need say is “Thank you” – again!!

  6. Marty Bowie says:

    Hi Phillip! I battle with over-thinking as a deep melancholic-introvert. I am very hard on myself – I need to find a balance here! Though, I find that writing simple Christian poetry, a little clean rapping ( simple Caucasian style) and singing (the last two only to 1 or 2 individuals) helps me get out of myself. Marty Bowie CBC/CIU ’71. ( I recognized you at CBC but I really didn’t know you then).

  7. jp says:

    Ah, solitude. I normally live a fairly quiet life having conscientiously filtered out a lot of the typical noise over many years. Since my son and daughter-in-law are both working I have the privilege and duty of attending to my 6 year old granddaughter’s schooling and daily needs. At 68 it can be exhausting and exhilarating both. I find pockets of time for solitude but miss the extended times with God. And yet He provides still. Thank you for your thoughtfulness in the challenging time.

  8. David Bornus says:

    I enjoyed this meditation. I have been thinking along the same lines during the last few months. When I was nine, our family moved from the city to a farm where I had no neighborhood friends, no phone, and spent a lot of time in solitude. I learned to invent solitaire versions of all games and read for hours, developing a life of the mind. I also explored and hunted through the empty farm groves, stalking small game, and pondering the past in the form of old derelict farm implements and junked 1940’s cars, or venturing into nearby abandoned farmhouses. My parents were children of the Depression and never threw anything away, so I could spend hours sorting through old toys, relics, furniture, and publications from yesteryear. Through all of this, the past seemed just as present as today.

    During these past few months I’ve often reflected that the present seems very familiar to me, as I remember childhood days. Like a fish returned to water, I feel at home in the solitude and while I occasionally miss things like being able to travel, etc., overall I am pretty content these days while we wait for a vaccine to hopefully return us to “normal.”

  9. Marina Rutter says:

    Dear Philip, thank you for the lovely input about solitude. I must admit I also enjoyed the “lockdown” (that’s what we call it in South Africa, because I managed to spend more time with my husband and working in the garden.
    However, I was a bit afraid of reading your next blog because I didn’t know what you would say about the terrible things that are happening in America (burning buildings, destroying Statues, de-funding the police, creating “independent states” in Seattle, the list goes on. If I were Mr Trump, I would go and live on a solitary island, and leave the crazy democrats to destroy the country to their heart’s delight.
    We have our problems in South Africa too. White farmers are being murdered daily, and their wives raped, People are threatened that their land will be confiscated with no compensation, millions of people are without work.
    We are old (get no pension) and we are living on the minimum (supplemented by our kind children who live overseas) We can’t go anywhere – because there is just no place which doesn’t have its problems. We can only look forward to the new Jerusalem!
    Sorry about all the negative stuff, If it wasn’t for faith in God, and that He knows what we are going through, I would not know what to do and I would be very depressed.

  10. This made me wonder about those words, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Perhaps we should understand them as referring to loneliness, not aloness.

  11. CC says:

    God is using this time of solitude to teach me to be still and to stop my busyness. It has given me the opportunity to look outside my four walls to the needs of others. It has afforded me the time to rediscover what is truly important in my life and what needs to be left by the wayside. Thank you for your insightful and meaningful sharing.

  12. Gloria Fearnside says:

    Really enjoyed this read which is very timely. My husband has dementia and in a nursing home and it was so hard for him to understand why I couldn’t visit him and now why the visits are so restricted. He thinks that I must have found somebody else.
    It certainly has taught me that my reliance has to be totally on God and His word so that I don’t succumb to the sadness around us all.

  13. Sally says:

    I always appreciate your thoughts. I have been grateful for solitude during this season of grief, for me, while at the same time missing the comfort friends and family usually can bring. It has been easier, somehow, not to pretend to be alright just now; most of humanity is not alright just now.

  14. Thomas Rood says:

    An excellent reading. Have enjoyed all of his books and still have them to reread as oft as possible

  15. John Irwin says:

    This was so good, Philip. Thank you so much.

  16. Jane says:

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. I’m one of those strange people who love solitude so this pandemic has not been a hardship, but I do have the privilege of having a telephone, computer, and television, so I suppose I’m not entirely isolated. Even so, I relish the quiet, the “alone-time”. I do hope many people come away from this experience with renewed sense of self and of communication with God.

  17. Janet F Johnson says:

    Enjoy Merton’s books!

  18. Sandy Harmon says:

    Very insightful and inspirational reading…thank you and May God continue to bless you as you have so richly blessed others….
    Sandy

  19. David Such says:

    Thank you for your insights, Philip. Do you think that solitude is easier for those of us who are considered introverts?

  20. Carol says:

    Thank you! Again and again your perspective on an issue brings enlightenment and renewal. This is so timely when we still do not see light at the end of this Covid tunnel.

  21. Sheppard Ken says:

    Thank you, Philip! As usual.

  22. Peter Olsson says:

    Love helps cure sepsis.
    In dark before dawn…
    through cobwebs and vails,
    of fever, fear, and tremor
    comes a voice remembered,
    “I love you”.
    a key aspect of my cure.
    Peter Olsson

  23. Phyllis Dolislager says:

    Reminds me of my counter-culture shock upon returning to the U.S. after living in Liberia, West Africa for two years. I wrote an article called Merry Go Rounds and Ferris Wheels.
    BTW I’m enjoying your book Soul Survivor. It contains so much richness, that I can only read one chapter a day, and sometimes it takes two days. Learning so much. Thank you. Thank you.
    Phyllis

  24. Edwin Hawkins says:

    Thank you for this message. As a result of our state of perplexity, I learned about something called centering prayer. And was pleased to see you mention Thomas Merton. In the midst of my busy isolation I find the most comfort in my 30 min of centering prayer.

  25. Mike Kunsman says:

    Philip,
    I’m working on solitude as well but not as good as you; but minds do think almost alike as in my recent writing about Friday, the day on which I was born called All Fridays are Good I concluded thinking about Defoe’s book that I have not read and his Man Friday. So thanks for explaining the plot better for me. I’m also a Merton follower and had my own epiphany at the corner of Franklin and Evans a while back.

  26. Tom King says:

    The Gift of Gratitude
    Lois Marie Fleming Bachmeier

    Should all God’s gifts be borne away, save one, And were it mine to choose,
    I’d choose the gift I love the most,
    The Gift of Gratitude.
    I’m grateful for the right to live, and to love as others do.
    My heart cries out, Dear God, it’s true, I am most grateful for the gift of You.

  27. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
    I’ve never heard anyone else describe that luminosity. I once experienced that. At home again, just after attending Cornerstone Festival, I walked into a restaurant and everyone there seemed luminous. That’s the only way I can describe it.
    It was a sense of God’s immanent presence that, as it turned out, carried me through my husband’s near death two days later. I’ve always seen the experience as God’s kind preparation for that trauma.
    He survived, it’s now been 28 years. Glory.

  28. John Brock says:

    God is delivering emails this morning. I cannot remember a time in my life when I needed what your wrote this morning. Isolation as a gift to be opened rather than dreaded. Immensely touched.

  29. Karen Craddock says:

    (Silence) (sigh) (😌)

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