Say hello to your new best friend: yourself

Self-isolating: Chinese millennials are taking up the hermit’s life in the mountains. © Bill Porter

Could self-isolation be a blessing in disguise? In the coming days, we face sweeping new rules confining us to our homes. But across the ages, many people have found solitude beneficial.

The teenage girl knelt in prayer, as the final bricks cutting her off from the rest of the world were put in place.

Outside, the bishop finished saying the office of the dead and set his seal upon the wall. Built against the side of the medieval church, the room – measuring just 12ft by 15ft – had three windows but no door. It would be the girl’s home for the rest of her life.

The girl was an anchoress, a type of nun who had chosen an extreme way of dedicating her life to God. The closest contact she would have with other people would be when they came to talk to her through one of the windows, or pass food to her. But she believed that the sacrifice was worth it because only by escaping the demands of everyday life, could she focus properly on prayer and contemplation.

It is hard to imagine anyone today going to such lengths, but people have always sought peace and quiet in order to explore their thoughts.

In Cyprus, the 12th Century hermit St Neophytus hollowed out a cave in a mountainside to escape interruption. In France, the 16th Century essayist Michel de Montaigne built himself a tower write in – even though his family had a luxurious château, a stone’s throw away.

The government believes that self-quarantine is the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It may sound like a grim prospect, but as the journalist Clare Foges wrote yesterday in the Times: “Might this mass retreat mean a mass reflection on what matters and how we should spend our time?”

Her article argues that the modern world glorifies group activity and sees solitary people as weirdos. Smartphones mean that we are always connected and have forgotten how to enjoy being alone. But Blair Zong, a woman who was quarantined recently in America, wrote in her diary: “After about 10 days, I actually see myself as happier than before. I’ve learned to check the phone less and focus on myself.”

Of course, many people lead solitary lives without wanting to. According to the charity Age UK, there are around 225,000 older people who often pass an entire week without having anyone to talk to. If the present epidemic makes us realise what life is like for them, and prompts us to do something about it, that will be no bad thing.

Could self-isolation be a blessing in disguise?

Two is a crowd

Some say that solitude is a commodity we have too little of in the 21st Century. We spend our lives surrounded by other people, but we need time to ourselves in order to think about the world properly. Self-isolation would give us a chance to focus on things that daily life does not often allow for, like reading long books, or making something complicated without being distracted.

Others argue that humans are, by nature, sociable creatures and we need the stimulus of other people’s company. Being part of a group is always more fun, and the most effective way of getting things done; it also gives you a broader view of the world. Spending a long time alone often just leads to your thoughts going round in circles, and can make people very depressed.

You Decide

  1. If you had to spend two weeks in one room, would you rather be on your own or share it with 20 other people?
  2. Is spending time alone the best way to develop ideas, or is it better to discuss them with others?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have to spend two weeks alone in an empty room and can take 10 things with you. Make a list of what you would choose.
  2. Imagine that you have been shipwrecked and find yourself alone on a desert island. Write a one-page diary about your first week there.

Some People Say...

“He who is unable to live in society, or has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.”

Aristotle (384-322 BC), Greek philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
From the earliest times, people have banded together in groups for protection and for the pleasure of each other’s company. The larger the group, the more successful it generally is. But there are some activities, from pondering philosophical questions to fishing, which we do better on our own, because they require intense concentration. Though few people would choose to live entirely alone, most feel the need for their own space.
What do we not know?
What life will be like if we and a lot of the people we know have to spend time in quarantine. We will still be able to talk to them by phone, but how much will we miss physical contact? We don’t know if the present pattern of more people living on their own will continue: in the US, the number almost doubled between 1960 and 2014, accounting for 28% of all households.

Word Watch

Office of the dead
A set of prayers, usually for people who have died, but said for an anchoress to signify that she had left her worldly life for a spiritual one.
Seal
A stamp, usually in wax, which was used either to show that a document was official or that something should not be opened.
Hermit
Someone who has chosen to live away from the rest of society, usually for religious reasons.
Michel de Montaigne
A Frenchman who lived in Bordeaux and is credited with inventing the essay as a type of writing.
Château
A French castle.
Self-quarantine
Quarantine is a period of isolation to prevent people suspected of having a disease from spreading it. To self-quarantine is to enter into it voluntarily.
Commodity
A useful thing or valuable thing, which can be bought or sold.

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