There was a point last week when my email inbox simply went dead. Even Facebook got quiet, personal stories replaced by endless ads. What did it mean? Had people disappeared into their caves? Had they found Nirvana in the silence, or had they given in to despair?
Some people, those on the front lines, are burning out. My friend John, a medical doctor, has now seen firsthand what isolation does to bad relationships and to mental instability. It's not pretty. Despite the threats of COVID-19 and the challenges to its containment, he wrote a letter to Premier Jason Kenny appealing for some kind of rapprochement, a relaxing in the rules of social distancing. It was not only for the sake of his patients. He himself needed the break.
Others have settled into a daily rhythm that may be inconvenient, but not altogether unpleasant. Jean and I would fit that category. She is working from home. I have begun a new writing project--a novel. So we rise each day and go to our separate tasks. But we eat together, go for daily walks, and most evenings settle in to watch a movie or a murder mystery. We are liking these new patterns. It feels like a rehearsal for Jean's retirement, when we will share such rhythms every day, happily and soulfully.
But many others, especially those living alone, have long surpassed the novelty of isolation. It's not fun anymore. FaceTiming and Zoom conferences take them only so far. Then they return to their book, or to the TV, or to the fridge, or to the endless pacing, like an animal in a cage. Everything becomes work, even the effort required to maintain contact with other animals in other cages. And when their friends and family reach out to them, to see how they are, it feels like a silent indictment of their aloneness, as if it was a shameful thing.
The Tao te Ching says that silence and stillness are manifestations of Tao, the true source of all words and action. It sounds lovely. Those of us who tend toward talk and action crave a little silence and stillness every now and then, to ground us. But when silence and stillness are not choices, when they're imposed on us, they are anything but a blessing. They can become a curse.
It has been said many times already during this strange and demanding time, of social distancing and isolation: Let us be especially kind to one another, attentive and thoughtful. Retreat is only a gift for those who seek it. To others it is a sentence. So, those who can, let us be gentle with ourselves, and loving to our neighbours. We're all in this together.