Isolation – it’s not a good word. To be isolated is to be separated, set apart, and detached. In its extreme form such as “solitary confinement,” it is a means of control or punishment or even torture. Think of the stories you have read of men or women who were taken prisoner, kept in a dark, confined space, cut off from any sort of contact with people or the world around them. Their experience was devastating.
While it is true that all of us have different levels of need for relationship with others, whether we are extroverts or introverts we all have a need for a sense of connection with other people and the world around us. There is no one who wants to be truly alone.
If you look up the word “isolation” in the dictionary you will see that there is another meaning – a separation imposed for the prevention of the spread of disease. This is a temporary and good kind of isolation but it does not make it any easier. What do you do when you have nothing to do? And no place to go? And no plans to see anyone today, or tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow?
A number of years ago I foolishly embarked on a 30-day form of what I thought was going to be the good kind of self-isolation. Finding myself right in the center of midlife with all the responsibilities of being a husband, father, a friend, and a busy minister of a growing church. I decided to take a month of my sabbatical time to go to a monastery for a silent retreat. The monastery, however, was in the middle of the desert and it turned out to be one of the hottest months on record—causing me to be even more confined to my room than I had expected. I was expecting this to be a respite from all the demands of my life, but, in a phrase, “the experience broke me.”
At first, I was fine. But then the walls started closing in. One night I awoke with a start, I jumped to my feet and started pacing. I didn’t know what was happening. Only long afterward did I realize that I was having a panic attack. I’d never experienced anything like it. I had always seen myself as a capable, in-control kind of person and now I was reduced to a bundle of jangling nerves. It was an incredibly humbling experience. Reflecting on that experience in our present time of “good isolation,” I’ve identified some things that help me in times of separation. I know some of them are so simple that we take them for granted, but I find value in repeating them for myself and I hope they give you some comfort too.
In a time of isolation, it is important to have a routine. Normally our routine in life is a given. We get up, go to work, take care of our family or fulfill our other obligations. But when you aren’t going anywhere and have no “time certains,” everything sort of runs together. You can stay up late, sleep late, lounge over your coffee and before you know it the day is over and you never even took a shower. This may be okay for a couple of days but long term it leads to a listless malaise. Establish yourself a daily routine of getting up, taking care of your body, by washing, eating, cleaning your surroundings. This is the first step in maintaining a connection with yourself and your immediate surroundings.
Connect with nature. Studies show that people who spend time in nature are happier and more content in life. This past week I’ve been watching the clouds – something that I often did as a child while sitting with my grandmother on our porch swing, but rarely do now. There is a sense of calm and wonder that comes over me as I closely observe the wisps of white moving across the sky, or see the wind moving the branches of the trees, or listen to a bird sing. That calm feeling is a sense of connection with the world of nature around me. It slows me down and invites me to sense and move with the rhythms of nature, rhythms that are completely constant. Out of the quietness they seem to say to me, “This too shall pass.”
Talk to yourself. “Self Talk” is something that we all do. All of us have this constant inner dialogue that is going on inside us. Listen in on it, pay attention. What is your inner dialogue like? Is it self-critical? Is it judgmental of others? Is it discouraged, and defeated? What would you like your inner dialogue to be? One of my dearest friends was a woman who experienced a debilitating illness later in life. It was painful to see how she was compromised but I was always amazed by the conversations that she had with herself. She would say to herself out loud, “Now Bev, we are going to…,” and she would outline the task at hand which was quite basic but very difficult for her to accomplish. Then in the midst of her effort, she would say out loud to herself, “Come on Bevvie Baby, I know you can do it!” And do know what, she would! I’ve adopted her mantra and now often say to myself, “Come on Philly Baby, I know you can do –“
Connect with God or your spiritual power or your higher being—however you are most comfortable describing the spiritual reality that all peoples sense. For me, as a Christian, I find spiritual strength in my relationship with Jesus. And I gain insight from the scriptures. I love the psalms. Take Psalm 46 for example:
I also find inspiration in the writings of spiritual seekers who tell it like it is. Some of my favorites are Louis Evely, Henri Nouwen, Ann Lamott, and others. These people are my spiritual companions on the way, they comfort and guide me and give me hope.
I am constantly challenged by having to prepare sermons. I often say that God must have called me to be a minister because God knew that I need to be constantly in a state of spiritual openness and awareness. Living week to week with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other asking God what is the word that you would have me say is both a struggle and a blessing. It keeps me living on the edge.
Finally, reach out in two directions – first reach out to a trusted friend to tell them how you are doing, what you are feeling and what you are thinking, so that you know that somebody else knows what is going inside of you. Be intentionally self-revealing. This breaks the chains of isolation and gives you a sense of liberation. Secondly, reach out to someone with the specific intention of being there for them! Ask how they are doing, then really listen, let them know that you hear them. Express your affection and care for them and let them know that if they ever need you that they can call on you.
That’s what I’ve learned about coping with isolation, I hope it helps you. I know that together we can make it through this time. God bless! Be in touch.