Do less, better: Seclusion and society in the new normal

Are you surprised to find that coming out of lockdown presents just as much cause for uncertainty as entering into it? It’s little wonder. We have all endured our own private journeys, and we are yet to find out not only what the new world looks like but the person we will be within it.

2020 was a watershed moment. We hitherto existed in a world typified by action. Even if at times that action was passive in nature – scrolling, browsing, consuming – there is no doubt we have been expected to be on.

And the constant struggle with on-ness hasn’t dissipated, even as 35.9% have been forced out of their offices and 11.2 million people have been furloughed. The state of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott understood it (Josh Cohen, Not Working. Granta, 2018, p. 80), is ingrained into us. Very rarely do we ever just stop.

But over the last year we have been extended a rare opportunity to at least sample it. While work may still attempt to go on, and while many are in fact busier than ever, there’s never been a time in living memory where so much of the world’s machinery has ground to a halt. Of course, the great pain and salvation of the modern era is that we can move much of this action into the 24/7 online realm. Though many of us are now fully fledged ‘digital nomads’, we are still hyperconnected like never before.

Yet physically, we don’t need to be here or there. We have been permitted to sink into our (perhaps natural) slovenly states unapologetically. And to such a degree that, now as we prepare to walk out into the new horizon, many are expressing a fear about having to step up to their former energy levels which were perhaps always out of balance for them.

It’s not uncommon to hear people on radio phone-ins, read columnists or observe others expressing the revelation that quite frankly they enjoyed having an excuse not to ‘do’. Not to see people, not to have to attend events or go out for dinner or drinks every night. Even those things we might genuinely enjoy can become onerous under expectation.

For all its cruelties, the pandemic has given us a great opportunity to journey inwards, explore our relationships with ourselves and with others, and in turn we have developed more tolerance for sensitivity than ever before. We recognise the struggles in others because they are the ones we are facing; though all of our circumstances may be different, they are all fundamentally the same: that of the fragmented, messy, vulnerable human seeking something stable.

Could it be that the thing we are actually scared of losing is that mutual unspoken level of compassion that has prevailed? Are we afraid that we will have to resort to making excuses for why we choose to say ‘no’ because the truth – that we simply don’t want to – isn’t good enough?

Malaise has been the symptom of 2020-21’s enforced lockdowns, but perhaps it’s just the human condition. Perhaps more times than not we simply don’t want to do but rather be, because ‘being’ allows us a chance to listen to and sit with our warring inner selves rather than trying to mask them by constantly leaving the house and throwing ourselves into the midst of distracting activity.

The stability we have always sought has often been projected onto the exterior: the comforting familiarity of jobs, shopping, events, holidays. But lockdown has allowed us to try finding it inside ourselves – even while our internal selves are inevitably in chaos.

My own experience with the solitude induced by the pandemic was at first a joy at having more time on my hands, which I promptly squandered. Then it was fluctuating periods of restlessness and relaxation. Halfway through the third stint I was scratching at the walls. It was the crisis point of my own lockdown narrative, where even though I had always been happy to spend time alone, the truth of who I was and what I am truly afraid of was unmistakable; I had to face up to the only other person I was incarcerated with: myself.

In such a state, it’s hard to truly internalise the fact that resolution must inevitably come, even if you know it to be logically true. Nothing lasts – not pain nor happiness; only change is certain, and the coorindates of that are never fixed. Getting the heart on board that good times will again come is difficult because it means having to cycle through your internal judgements and fears all the same. There is no shortcut to resolution. No one to hold your hand through the fire you must inevitably pass through. But that is what makes solitude a transformative process.

Some of those still not finished with the solitude that the pandemic had to deal out are finding themselves reassessing their life choices. Should they change jobs to enjoy more of a work-life balance, or become a nomad and travel the world? Along the faultlines of any major upheaval, at the brink of life and death, we are forced to challenge our notions of what success – or rather meaning – is in life. Is it working 40+ hours a week? Climbing the career ladder? Raising a family or rather raising a family in your mind, nurturing your own private passions so that you cultivate within yourself a place of support? Perhaps meaning goes beyond you and yours and extends to doing what you can for others who can’t help themselves?

It’s perhaps fitting that the film Nomadland – a work of fiction yet starring real-life nomads and their stories – has already garnered a large swathe of media attention at such a time. It offers us the opportunity to slip into a role we really wish we could inhabit. We’ve already glimpsed behind the curtain this last year, now many want to see more.

Nomads and hermits – those quietly existing on the fringes of society – have always fascinated me. Though not subscribing to any religion, the pathway of a nun or monk has always appealed to me, living a life of solitude, marked by their devotion to something higher than themselves.

Of course, while this seems noble, in laypersons a desire to live a secluded life on one’s own terms is often considered selfish and viewed with suspicion. But I believe the desire to stop, to simply retreat into the self and find comfort there in bed with our own contradictions, very soon morphs into a reflection on the bigger issues that otherwise don’t seem worthy of our time and attention – until of course we find ourselves at the end of our road. It’s no wonder some of the biggest contributions to our culture come from some of the biggest idlers of all time – Charles Bukowski, Albert Einstein, John Lennon.

Time for oneself gives rise to reflection which in turn gives rise to a greater desire to live in harmony with our environment, greater personal responsibility and compassion for the human condition and all of its failures.

A recent BBC 4 documentary, Brotherhood, exploring the lives of monks at Leicestershire’s Mount St Bernard Abbey beautifully illustrated the push/pull of doing and being. Much of the monk’s day is spent in prayer and also finding ways to raise money (in this instance creating a Trappist brewery on site to replace their non-profit making dairy farm) – but it is also spent in a relative state of physical inertia. Much of the doing takes place internally.

I was minded by the words of one of the elder monks who said, ‘living in the presence of God, I don’t say prayers anymore. My life is a prayer.’ It’s an ethos that for me summarises the sweet spot between doing and being. If you can dedicate your life and behaviour to compassion, not fighting – to simply being who you are – then you reach a point where you no longer need to strive, you embody it, you are in perpetual internal communion with yourself and therefore the world around you. This spiritual recompense feels more profitable and fundamental than, say, defining your life as striving to pay off a mortgage.

It’s not that those who want to hang on to solitude that bit longer wish to remove themselves from society. Far from it, I believe more often than not they want to feel more at ease within it rather than simply ground down by it. Monks spend a lot of time alone, but in a cloister with their brethren, underpinned by the presence of God. Community is just as vital as solitude. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Monty Python sketch of the community of hermits living only paces away from each other and willingly engaging in ‘idle chitchat’. We don’t wish to renounce others, simply to have more time for ourselves to do the things that build us up rather than deplete us.

So, as we begin to rebuild a society for the future, in whose image will we make it – and ourselves? Will we decide to stay loyal to our always-on culture, or will we give ourselves more time to hold hands with the people we know we are within?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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