I practice social distancing. I thought it would be easy. It’s not.
Being introverted –– by which I mean that engaging with lots of people drains my energy –– one would think I’d welcome any limits imposed that would spare me extended social engagements. I found I am not easy with social distancing. It unnerved me at first. I wondered why.
It’s not that I have no fear of the virus. I do. The virus is scary. I understand the wisdom in being prudent and observing the precautions, including social distancing.
No, this reaction of mine to staying home is something else, unrelated to my essential survival instincts. I’ve noticed that as soon as something which I’d normally welcome and happily indulge places limits on me, it loses some of its magic. In other words, now that I have all the free time that I might ever have wished for, I have this urge to get busy using it up by going out to shop, see a movie, to eat and otherwise mix it up with people. It’s perverse: I wish for what I don’t have and don’t for what I have. I believe that I suffer from severe case of what I have diagnosed as Americhosis ––an American male’s atavistic impulse to resist doing anything that someone else has told him to do.
Do you suppose what I am experiencing is similar to what Adam and Eve felt when they first lived in the garden? Except for the one constraint imposed upon them –– not to eat the fruit from a particular tree –– they were free to do whatever they wished. They had a blank check, a surfeit of pajama days, sans pajamas. And sure enough, with all the freedom afforded them, the forbidden fruit seemed the more attractive. What they had, although plenty, was not enough.
One change in our lifestyles imposed by the pandemic is the request by officials to stay home. As if to sweeten the pot, in some instances, there are promises of financial compensation. Under normal circumstances most people would welcome such a break. Admittedly, the shadow of the coronavirus that hangs over us is disturbing, but for an undetermined period we have free time unencumbered by obligations to do anything or go anywhere, like the snow days we had as kids.
Who among us doesn’t recall waking up as a child to learn that school had been cancelled? Snow days were common during my childhood. When one occurred, I’d feel jubilant; I had an entire day and perhaps a few more in which I had nothing to do except what I wanted. Providence had no greater gift to offer kids than school cancellations. Whenever school announced one, I felt as though I’d been delivered.
With snow days, there were no restrictions. A snow day was a freebee with no strings attached.
I’m not so sure adults feel the same about free time being imposed on them, especially American men who have a reputation for being workaholics.
Mary Catherine Bateson, in her classic book, Composing a Life, treats the matter of how men and women tend to use their “leisure” –– the time they spend outside of their responsibilities. In my day, a woman’s role in domestic life was far more eclectic than men’s were at work. The task of caring for children, managing the household, dealing with kids’ crises, large and small repairs around the house, left her little if any free time. She yearned for it. She’d typically take hold of free time and luxuriate in it, filling her days with imaginative projects she’d put on hold for the duration of the marriage. Husbands, who functioned primarily as breadwinners, performed their work typically outside the home and for the most part their tasks were defined by much tighter parameters than were women’s. When men retired, Bateson observes, they were more inclined to feel lost and restless, as if something had been taken from them –– not sure exactly what to do –– very different from women who found retirement, liberating, a gift.
When circumstances remove us from the tasks and social networks that have traditionally defined our lives, we are left alone with ourselves. While the freedom implied in this seems attractive at first, the experience of it can be unnerving. Who am I, if I am not busy ‘doing’ something?
When I first retired, I felt this discomfort. I had all the time in the world to do as I wished. As a therapist, my professional day had been defined by hourly appointments. At retirement, I wasn’t sure how to reorient myself around my experience of time. How do I reconstruct a life? I felt unsettled for several months.
Like all crises can, whether social or medical –– in this case both –– they shake loose unaddressed spiritual matters. They surface deficits in the health of our souls.
Any crisis that forces us to be alone with ourselves for any length of time unpacks many unsettling issues. In the mid 17th century Blaise Pascal, a renowned religious philosopher and mathematician, made this prescient statement: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Social distancing may create opportunities, but the kind that, at first, are not welcomed.
I’d offer this thought for our troubling times: that the health of our souls requires us to manage ourselves flexibly in two ways. That we remain meaningfully connected with others while deliberately taking quiet time to be alone with our deepest thoughts, listening to what they tell us. The social distancing now being asked of us can provide the time and space we need for reflection and, the availability of an iPhone, the means of remaining connected.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.