The age of loneliness
As we socially distance ourselves, it's more important than ever to be there for each other.
As a depressed and anxious extrovert, social distancing is quite possibly the worst prescription. But, social distancing for the betterment of the world makes that quite a bit easier. For my second piece about the COVID–19 pandemic, I wrote about social isolation and how we will hopefully be better as a society. I know it’s optimistic but we need to find a reason for hope. My first piece about the outbreak – “We are in the midst of a plague.” — is here.
I hope this newsletter is a way to bring people together. We have hundreds of readers on here so I’m going to figure out a way to create a digital sense of community that’s more intimate than other social media platforms. Substack emailed me about a live chat website called Throne, so click here to check that out. I’m hoping to create a place where we can just talk and socialize. I will consider other ways to create a sense of community! Let me know your thoughts too!
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A global pandemic lays to waste any semblance of normalcy that we collectively have. We are forced to reconcile with changes to our lifestyles that we’ve never seen before. Gyms, bars, restaurants close forcing us to work out, eat, and drink alone in the confines in our homes. We are told to avoid others by a minimum distance of six feet, wash our hands every two seconds, and avoid public places as best as we can. We are told to do this to reduce the spread, or “flatten the curve,” to protect society’s most vulnerable. We are told social isolation is the key; being alone is the most compassionate form of social solidarity, of social responsibility, we can do for our peers on planet Earth. To protect others, we must avoid them.
In the weeks and months after my sister died, the small shit stopped mattering to me. I felt calmer about the world; traffic seemed not to bother me, rude comments bounced right off of me, everything just seemed to take on less importance in the absence of my sister. The color of the world faded to a saturated greyscale; color did not fade away entirely but the world was dulled, much like a midwestern January. The people around me were gentler, more considerate of me and also more reflective of their own life existence. At my sister’s funeral, I watched as my best friends—grown men that still looked to me like their high school selves—sobbed. They loved my sister and my sister loved them. She was like a sister to so many of them. For all of us lucky enough to have her in our lives, to see her lay still in a casket was to see a world slightly less vibrant without her soul.
Time seems not to exist when I’m in the presence of my close friends and family. The creation of a memory has long been the escape I need when I’m not feeling well. My depression has never resonated as one where I hole up in my room and sleep; it has mostly manifested as me shirking responsibilities and taking Duncan to the park or going and spending time with my friends and family. It’s when I’m with them that I force myself to put on a front. I find the strength to act like I’m happy because my struggles are not their burden. This method, as unhealthy as a coping mechanism it may be, forces me to fake it, which ends up working pretty well in making me feel happy.
Then those experiences end and I’m reminded of the triviality of all of this.
Over a fifth of Americans have some sort of anxiety disease. Worldwide, more than 264 million—3% of the global population—people have depression. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that probably a fifth of the world follows the US in their rates of anxiety diseases. As we’re entering a new era of the world where social distancing is the single most important act any individual can do to protect ourselves and others, we are entering the age of loneliness. Everybody feels lonely in life, and now we’re forced to isolate for the betterment of the world.
Americans haven’t been quarantined for a week and we’re already seeing just how deeply lonely social isolation can feel. We are social creatures. Our social predisposition is what helped us climb the natural food web to become the apex predators of the world. We work well together, we communicate, we benefit others and others benefit us. Even the most introverted of us tend to love others even if we don’t love spending time with them all of the time.
A pandemic such as this is difficult for a number of reasons: the illness, the social isolation, the unknown. We don’t know how long we will need to socially distance from the people and places we love most. As we socially distance ourselves, it’s probable that things will appear to calm down, which only reinforces the importance of social distancing. Millions of Americans are working from home or out of work, our health care professionals are on the front lines dealing with this crisis, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and gas station workers have become (as they always were, we were just blinded to it) essential workers to keep our society resembling something at least semi-functional.
Throughout all of this, to maintain our sanity, it is critical that we continually remind ourselves of our sense of community and solidarity with one another. It’s going to be difficult. Our relationships with others are what make life worth living. Most of us have jobs that are valuable and fulfilling, but at the end of our lives, it is unlikely we will wish we worked more. We will probably wish we spent more time with the people that made us feel like worth is living. The most important value we create is not the value we create in our jobs; it is making others feel loved and like the world they’re living in is worth fighting for.
In the weeks leading up to my sister’s death, what matters in life crystallized in front of my eyes. Abs didn’t matter, the work I did—while I knew it was valuable and had to be done—felt meaningless, if girls found me attractive meant nothing to me. What mattered to me was the words I said to those I loved and making the most of the time I spent with them. There were so many things I wanted to say to my sister to let her know how loved she was and the imprint she was going to leave on the world, even when she was gone. I sent “I love you guys so fucking much,” to my boys’ group chat often, I made sure to tell my colleagues and other friends how much I loved them.
The truth is, existence at all is a gift. The existence of human life, of our lives, is wondrous. When we speculate on the beginning of the universe and we contemplate how life arose on planet earth, it starts to sound like fiction really quickly. The torrent of a global pandemic as it bears down on every community in the world is not unlike the death of a loved one in that it forces us to reconcile with the truths of our lives. Social isolation, paradoxically, is a collective fear of missing out; we aren’t missing what others are doing because nobody is (supposed to be, at least) doing anything. We are missing what we should be doing with our lives if it weren’t for this stupid, inconsiderate, emotionless virus.
When we lose a loved one or even go through heartbreak, we are hijacked of a future we envisioned we had. Memories are not only the present and the past, but they are also of the future. We look forward to future memories we will create with others and we begin to imagine what they will look like. We create the foundation of memories long before the memories are created. Memories are not concrete with nicely delineated beginnings and ends; they are shapeless and dynamic, affected by pretenses and nostalgia. Even in cases where the loss of a loved one is expected, to pretend like we are such unfeeling creatures that we don’t imagine they may be there for longer than expected and there for those futures is incorrect. We do it, and it’s okay that we do it. It’s a way for us to grapple with the current heartbreak.
I wanted to be realistic about my sister’s prognosis. At times, I was callous and prepared for her death. At other times, when the pain was too much to bear, I imagined a miraculous future where researchers could print perfect lungs for people who needed them. In some moments, I imagined a future where she was there and in other moments, I forced myself to feel what it would be like if she wasn’t. When my sister died, a part of me died, and a timeline I had always hoped would exist sealed shut, permanently. The global pandemic of COVID–19 is doing that for every human on earth right now.
Things are going to be hard, my friends. All of our futures have been altered. There are terminal folks that hoped to have a few good months with their friends and family that are now unable to due to risk of fatal complications from covid-19; there are elderly people in retirement homes with no access to visitors that are lonelier than ever; there are immunocompromised people relying on others to be considerate for them; all of us are confronting circumstances that we hadn’t anticipated. We are being forced, through no fault of our own, to consider our health and behavior for the sake of others.
Life can feel bleak on any given day for anyone of us. Depression and anxiety weaponize bleakness to cultivate a sense of doom for individuals. Social isolation and global pandemics are only adding more sense of doom to the equation. It is in this bleakness that we need to find some beauty, as hard as it may be.
We can choose to remain isolated, both physically and communally. We can act like we don’t any of the members of our community anything. We can turn our back on one another.
Or we can choose to use this as our chance to recognize a sense of solidarity with those we know and those we don’t. This isn’t about being there for the people we care about or know. This is about people there for people we don’t; people in our communities and outside, people in our countries and outside, people all across the world.
It is a terrifying time for all of us and this is only the beginning for Americans. We must be there for one another, in shared understanding that every single person the Earth’s future is now different. It doesn’t matter if you’re upset that your bachelor party got canceled or if you have an immunocompromised loved one you can’t see right now. There is no good in comparing grief or circumstances. We must come together and recognize that, for the betterment of the world and for our future, we are in this together.
I bet you’re scared and sad right now. That’s okay. So am I. We’re going to be there for each other. Once the smoke clears, we have to believe we are going to be more empathetic and willing to fight for a better world.
Right now, fighting for a better world means isolating yourself and avoiding public as best as possible. You have no idea how many lives you may be saving. Right now, the most compassionate act you can do for society is to be alone.
We all may feel alone, but we’re in this together.
How are you spending your quarantine time? Please respond or comments with your thoughts about everything. I hope to write about other people’s experiences in an upcoming issue. Thanks so much, all. I appreciate your support.