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The experience of isolation

The UK has been in lockdown for almost two weeks, and some have been self-isolating for longer. This personal account of life in isolation reflects on the experience, and some of the unexpected benefits, of such a drastic change in our lifestyles.

Last week, I left my house for the first time in fourteen days. I had been in precautionary quarantine following possible exposure to COVID-19. I will no doubt look back on this period as if it passed in the blink of an eye. Yet during those days I spent in isolation, I began to notice certain flickers of change in the way that I was thinking and in the way that I was feeling.

There were many days when I felt overwhelmed or demoralised by the prospect of what lay ahead. There were days of panic, anxiety, and even paranoia. There were also days when I was crushed by sadness at the deep selfishness of the stockpilers and the spreaders. But nested in amongst these turbulent hours, I found something quite surprising.

I slowly became aware of a startling range of positive psychological changes taking root inside me already. If social distancing is in force for many months it will be important for each of us to nurture whatever new shoots we find. I began to document these reflections on the experience of isolation and identified twenty-five possible benefits:

1. I am completely dependent on friends to deliver food – and the shelves in the shops are largely bare anyway. I already feel a greater appreciation for the basic things that I normally buy. Bread and toilet roll are now exciting items. Will the pandemic give us a renewed gratitude for our everyday material comforts? Will it check that addiction to continually looking for the next, slightly better product – rather than savouring the one that we have?

2. A walk around my garden has become an adventure, the highlight of the day. Will isolation also give us a renewed appreciation of the simple experiences in our lives? Will it check that addiction to relentlessly seeking the next experience – rather than fully experiencing the one unfolding now?

3. With restrictions on access to food, I am gradually being forced to adopt a less wasteful attitude. I am planning ahead more and throwing away less. This is still a learning curve.

4. There is a strangely liberating feeling to the breaking of habits, whatever they are. We implicitly understand this when we spontaneously enjoy a new route to a place we know well. The breaking of habits is sometimes accompanied by a feeling of guilt – such as when we take time off. But when it is compulsory, the feeling of liberation is untainted. Spontaneity is refreshing, no matter how small or trivial.    

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5. With the sudden shattering of old habits, there is now space to restructure our lives and put in place new routines. This is a reset button – if we need it. We can leave those those toxic habits here – if we want to.    

6. Obligatory downtime is equally liberating. Isolation is undercutting our addiction to relentless productivity. It can be almost exhilarating crossing out event after event in the diary. In the modern world, there is a certain beauty to a series of blank pages in a diary.

7. For a while, we have the unique opportunity to live simpler day to day lives with less frantic travel, less multi-tasking, less oppressive to-do lists. Enjoy it while it lasts.

8. Small inconveniences have begun to seem even less significant in comparison to the wider challenges. I have always loathed having to go down into the basement to get food out of the spare freezer. I strolled down happily yesterday.

9. There are days when minor fears, worries and inhibitions shrink away to almost nothing. I am naturally wary of technology that I am not familiar with. But I am now experimenting with every different video call system that I can find in order to best keep in touch with friends and family. In contrast to everything else going on, my previous inhibitions are just not worthy of consideration.    

10. Confined to the house and garden, I have become more creative. I have begun to see potential value in everything around – including the junk in the shed and in the basement. I built a hammock stand out of a dead tree, a broken table, and some old hosepipe. Those who study creativity know well that creativity flourishes within constraints.

It is typically problems or limitations that generate the best ideas. In confirmation of this, we are seeing an explosion of new kinds of activities online – from virtual pub quizzes to Skype skill swaps. The internet is evolving in response to new constraints.

  • This hammock stand then became a cocktail bar. The Ivy is the world's only cocktail bar with zero paying customers and made 100% from complete rubbish.

11. Isolation breeds curiosity. I have never explored my garden so thoroughly. I discovered a new bird’s nest on the roof of our house. With less to see, my eyes are wider than ever. When I speak to others on the phone, I am asking more questions and listening for longer.

12. I feel more open to trying something new. Our habits usually push us thoughtlessly from one day to the next. As they are broken, and huge stretches of time open up in their place, I feel freer to simply try something for the sake of it.    

13. We are seeing a public shift to activities that are healthier and more creative. Exercise is now at the core of daily life and essential to expending built up energy. For some, the pub has been replaced with drawing, painting, cooking, DIY, meditation, yoga, a new language, an online course… though I will still be at the front of the queue when the pubs reopen.    

14.  We value our friends and family more deeply with every day that passes.     We are ringing our family members with greater frequency, knowing how much we would give to see them face to face for just a few minutes. We must never forget this experience. We must also never forget the horrendously glitchy video calls that we endure just to exchange gibberish with friends.

15. We are slowly waking up to the realisation that the “low skilled” workers in our society are essential to every aspect of our lives. We are also finally remembering the ideals at the pulsing heart of the NHS. This is what is being applauded from the windows and the balconies. We must never forget this either. More broadly, we are being confronted with the brute fact that we are interdependent as a society whether we like it or not.

16. The B-word has been banished. In or Out. Remain or Leave. These political issues just aren’t as important as the collective threat that we face right now. Is our fractured society finally healing?

17. We are falling in love with our natural spaces again. Although it was idiotic to flock en masse to the various sites of natural beauty,     those who did so were fundamentally motivated by something that was not idiotic: A desire for space, for movement, for exploration. These natural spaces are around us all the time but often lie largely empty. Will we remember them when our ordinary lives resume?

Read: To combat Covid-19, Universal Basic Income must go viral worldwide

18. In experiencing isolation, we are better understanding the position of the loneliest members of our society – the elderly and the socially marginalised. Many experience isolation all year round. Will we apply this lesson when normality returns?

19. We now have time to properly self-reflect. The death of downtime in the modern world has squashed almost all opportunity to think deeply for long periods about ourselves, our lives, and our long term goals. We often bustle from day to day, and week to week, without wondering where we are actually going – let alone why. This is now a vital chance to catch our breath and think.    

20. This is also an opportunity to become comfortable with our own company. So many unhealthy friendships and relationships stem from a fear of ourselves. So much substance abuse is fuelled by escapism. Could this time alone desensitise us as a society to solitude? When we re-emerge, might we even be a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser?

21. Our attention span is dying. This is one of the great unspoken tragedies of the modern age. For many perfectly literate people, it is now hard to read a book. The constant stimulation of social media, email, and messenger services is having a devastating effect on our ability to focus for long periods. But attention is the engine of intelligence. Will we see a resurgence during isolation? This is surely up to us and how we use this time. But the opportunity is there.

22. In ordinary times, it is hard to be extraordinary. In extraordinary times, there is the opportunity for greatness everywhere. Yes, we will see selfishness, cowardice, and self-deception, but we will also see the true depths of human decency, courage, and compassion. These depths are normally hidden from view. We will experience things we have never experienced before.

Can we cultivate an enduring sense of social responsibility and self-sacrifice? For all but the most senior generation, this is the greatest test of our lifetime. We will all learn vast amounts about ourselves – the good and the bad. Will we manage to match the self-sacrifice of those during WWII, a comparable challenge in scale? If not, why not? What do we lack now and why?

23. In seeing our ordinary lives crumble in just a couple of weeks, we gain insight into the fragility and impermanence of even the most secure of things. The surreal has become normal and the normal has become surreal.

But these insights allow for a sharpened experience of the present moment, a heightened engagement with everyday life, and it guides us to a more modest view of our own status and achievements in life. They are temporary and fragile too.    

24. In light of the economic collapse, we are already beginning to rethink the relationship between the rich and the poor, the responsibilities of the wealthier members of society, and the possible role of government.

The vast government intervention in supporting those who are struggling, though imperfect, sets a crucial precedent for the future. It stretches the terms of debate. Indeed, it could even normalise government intervention and the active redistribution of wealth in a way that is parallel to the impact of WWII on post-war policy.

25.  The COVID-19 virus has done more to reduce carbon emissions than all of the world’s governments combined over the last thirty years. Consumption of non-essential products has also plummeted globally. Psychologically, though, and more fundamentally, our response to the outbreak has demonstrated – unequivocally, without any shadow of a doubt – that we can radically change our behaviour as a species and very quickly.

It just requires coordination and commitment. This is now proof of concept. We can no longer tell ourselves that substantial change is impossible. Our conception of normality is currently in small pieces on the floor. This can be cause for alarm or it can be cause for hope. Do we have to go back to how things were? Do we even want to?

Andrew Routledge

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  1. Chris Stokes

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