It has been said that perhaps our current requirement to remain at home with our families, with no responsibility except to keep others safe by not going out, is given to us for a reason. Perhaps we’ve been granted the opportunity to reset and re-focus–to restore the bonds with our families that may have become frayed or broken. To enjoy the blessings of home, that we lost in the bustle of our hectic, modern world. To enjoy the small things in ordinary life, instead of running, running, running, after something “better.”
This may all be true. But left out of it is just the astounding amount our society has changed. It presents the picture of a happy nuclear family, with husband, wife and children uniting in their cozy home. We lift our eyes out to see the world as it really is, and we see people alone. In Canada, large numbers of people remain single, and stats report fourteen percent of people live alone. Lest you begin to worry, no, I am not currently isolating all alone. However, I do know what it is like to live alone, and how many people do live alone. I also know that convenient living arrangements with various strangers in one house, which is also quite common in our culture, is not quite the same sort of community as living with a group of people you consider “family.”
That’s just the modern world now–tight-knit communities have frayed. Independence has been emphasized to our young adults as a goal. We may go to church, but few of us see the church as a major figure in forming our salvation–we follow the modern, individualistic route of having a direct, personal relationship with God. In some ways, our world is just too complex to live in those tight-knit clans and tribes we knew before. But when the complexity of the world suddenly stops, and we’re all left as individual islands in the middle of chaos, we’re forced to face our situation. Will our self isolation reset our assumptions? Will singles, too, reap whatever supposed benefits families are projected to reap from this time?
Shortcomings of Living Alone
I know very well the shortcomings of living alone. I know the way you can tweak your arrangements to precisely your liking, do dishes on precisely the schedule you prefer, throw your stuff exactly where you want it, and get out of the habit of ever considering the comfort of anyone else. I know the temptation to just fill the empty social space, and endless quiet, with the mindless chatter of entertainment and internet. There’s sins that become apparent when you live in family, but there’s also sins that sneak in when you live alone.
And now some of us are set in position where we can’t flee our aloneness–we’re firmly set in a situation where we are contained within our self and responsible only for our own tiny little world. How many people joke on Twitter that they adapted far too easily to doing nothing? Our discipline dissolves due to a lack of routine. Sometimes responsibility needs to be shouldered in the context of community, and the condoning of isolation becomes the pretext for sliding out of the need to do anything. We focus on what we think will keep our spirits up, to numb ourselves to the quiet. Yes, please, send me new podcasts. Upload new content to YouTube. I’m pretty content with my isolation when I’m watching them.
How do we repent of the sins of individualism from our little quarantine boxes? How do we repent of amusing ourselves to death? Is it even possible to live in community and submit to the church, the way God requires us to be, when we are confined in four walls and left to our own devices? Without a task, or responsibility, or anything outside of ourselves, other than the now-heroic duty to do exactly what we’re doing–stay home.
I feel quite unequipped to give advice to counter this. I know how much I struggle with motivation, if no one tells me what to do, or cares about what I do with myself. There’s already a ton of advice on how to improve your internal motivation to do things–make your bed–and ways to avoid distracting yourself endlessly. What I’m thinking about is the spiritual framework for social isolation. If we’re going to start disciplining ourselves in this time, we might as well start with spiritual disciplines. In the context of us, within ourselves and without community, can our time be redeemed?
Christians throughout history have retreated from society to refocus themselves–there have historically been hermits living in the desert, or monks committing to live in silence, or (less dramatically) Christians who spend weekends on retreats from everyday life. While some aspects of a more monastic model might be helpful to us, I’m not putting that forward as the spiritual framework for all of us in this particular time. Life and faith in the Bible is lived in the context of communities. Our faith is not this quiet thing between us and God, that has no impact on anything outside of ourselves. We need to learn to live through faith, in love, with each other.
What’s a Spiritual Framework for This Time of Isolation?
So if we’re not going to retreat into ourselves and develop independent, inner spiritual experiences as the goal of our isolation, what kind of spiritual framework should we look for during this quarantine? This may be our opportunity to examine individualism itself. Is this how we should live? Is this how we want to live?
Maybe, if we don’t completely self-medicate the silence away, we can grow more aware of our individualism through this time. Maybe we can see the habits we grew accustomed to, which might be careless of other people. Maybe we can examine ourselves and see the sins that impact others.
We’ve been given a time to build our vision of the good life. Our circumstances reveal how much of what we spent our time running after is not important after all. In a crisis situation, we’ll chuck various non-essential things out of the window. So in a good life, we need to think about what should really matter. If we want to grow into the fullest version of ourselves that God has created us to be, we need to live a life that develops us well mentally, emotionally, spiritually and relationally. Unfortunately, we shy away from considering this because it can feel overwhelming and painful. We see how wounded we are mentally, relationally, and even spiritually. But if we never face our wounds, we can never heal them.
It can be harder for singles to meditate on the good life. It can be a bit overwhelming to look at the ideals. What’s presented as a good life is a rich community atmosphere where everyone has a role and everyone contributes and everyone receives encouragement and appreciation for their contribution in turn. It may seem impossible to be part of such a vision of Christian life for many of us, and even more impossible for us from our current isolation. We look at ourselves and feel we are not lights in the world like we desire to be, like we’re told we should be. From the outside, we often look like individuals just following our own paths like anyone else.
For example, it’s hard enough to read about the virtue of hospitality and know you utterly fail to reach that virtue no matter how much you try, possibly because it’s very difficult to do on your own–and then be told you can’t even use the small beginning of hospitality you have reached, for the foreseeable future.
For me, personally, I struggle to contribute to social situations, so I try make up for it by being “there”—signifying the objective reality of the existence of the group by showing up when our flaky society insists we don’t have to. And now I cannot even do this.
So we face our inability to reach the ideal. What has this pandemic taken from me? It has laughed in the face of my intense desire to build community. I spent a year as helpless as a little child, reduced to one room and one couch, removed from the world at large as a result of a hip injury. My primary social connection was my parents, and I contributed almost nothing to the benefit of others in any way during this time. And it has only been since about January that I began to feel strong enough to do things for others without the fear I’d have to bail on them—with the confidence I would show up when needed. I began to think I could begin to contribute to the world again. I thought perhaps there was a path, despite my fragility, of participating the world in a way that made it better. And if I retreat to my room again, with my only contribution, or even connection, to others is clicking “like” on Facebook—then I may as well not have recovered at all.
And yet, despite the enormous incentive to despair, there must be hope in all of this. We have always been given unfulfilled longings in the face of the ideals we know we’re striving for—there’s always been reason to grieve the unrealized good in this world. We may ask God to take away our thorns in the flesh because we really can’t see how God is glorified when we’re so hampered by them, but we can trust him when he tells us “no.” Right now, for whatever reason, he’s removed the goodness of true Christian community from us for a time. We ought to meditate on the goodness of living among others, so we do not forget it. We also ought to lament that it is so far away from us. But we can also trust. Our longings and lament are not for nothing.
After living alone for many years, I can say that too often I’ve failed in all of the advice I give above–self-examination, trust and hope. May God be with us in our spiritual development during this quarantine, and open our eyes to the deeper ways we can learn to serve him.