The Book of Genesis got it right: it’s not good for anyone to be alone - Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair
Of course, a healthy dose of solitude needn’t be a bad thing. We all need time and space to reflect and to mull over those things which are bothering us. Hitting the pause button, stepping back, getting things in perspective, tending to our spiritual health – those time-outs are best done on our own. A walk through a park, or along a beach for those of us who live at the coast, or a foray into the hills can be exactly what the doctor ordered (literally, in some cases.)
Sometimes it’s good to be alone. Sometimes it’s essential.
But normally, we humans are social animals and our day to day functioning is dependent on a certain amount of interaction. Though a year ago few of us had ever heard of Zoom, 2020 has taught us that it’s not a substitute for actually being in the same space as other people.
Faith communities, along with others, have found ways to continue their shared life online but they’ve suffered immensely from not being able to gather – and yet have readily accepted that keeping people safe is, right now, the only show in town.
Interestingly, it looks like the pandemic has caused many more people to consider some of the big questions; not least, is there a God we might turn to and if there is, where is this God?
For those who live on their own, enforced periods of lockdown have been particularly difficult. I’ve heard from some people who went for several months without feeling the touch of another human being; from others that the nearest they got to another person was the length of their garden path as the visitor dropped off shopping or a prescription.
We struggle perhaps to articulate it but within ourselves we know that we are fully alive when fully present to others. Life is a team sport. Why else would being sent to solitary confinement serve as a punishment?
On one hundred occasions, the New Testament writers employ the phrase ‘one another’ – “be kind to one another”, “accept one another”, “serve one another”, “bear one another’s burdens” etc.
We’re meant to be together.
For my own part, I was fortunate never to be wholly isolated but there were weeks when I was never out and found myself going for several days without any proper interaction. I’d always thought myself to be perfectly happy in my own company and so it was something of a surprise to me that I was affected as much as I was and that my mood and my sleeping and eating patterns were all adversely affected by enforced isolation.
Of course, there were many others who pointed out that, for them, lockdown hadn’t much changed anything. Loneliness is as much a part of 21st century living as is digital connectivity. Who would ever have thought that the day would come when both the UK Government and the Scottish Government would have strategies to reduce loneliness and social isolation?
For many, the major impact of the pandemic has been in terms of their working environment. While working from home might have sounded like an attractive option – and there are upsides – many have found that not being among colleagues has been much more of a loss than they would have imagined. The passing in the corridors, the sharing of the lifts, the chat at the coffee machine, the nipping out to the sandwich shop at lunchtimes; it turns out that these things matter in terms of how we feel.
And so, does the way we interact at Christmas. Though restrictions have been eased for a festive window, rightly we’re being warned against over-doing it and so it’s very unlikely that we’ll be engaging with family and friends as usually we do. The turkey won’t have to be divided up on to as many plates as is normally the case. Parlour games rather than swinging parties will be the way of it.
It seems undeniably true, then, that “it is not good for us to be alone” in the deepest, existential sense. Though written at least two and a half thousand years ago, the author had a profoundly perceptive understanding of human nature. And this is equally true; that often enough we don’t appreciate those things which really matter until we don’t have them.
We’ve seen the problem but we’ve also seen wonderfully inspiring, heart-warming responses – and while there may be government strategies, much of that response to isolation and pandemic-related challenges has come from “ordinary folk” and from the mobilisation of communities. It’s been neighbours who have watched out for each other. It’s been small collectives and third sector organisations who have mobilised to combat food poverty – one Glasgow-based church alone having distributed in excess of 30,000 food parcels. When you add up all the small acts of random (and organised) acts of kindness, you get a wave of concern and caring and compassion – a reminder that the word ‘community” refers not just to an identifiable geographic district and a built environment but to the glue that binds the people who live there together.
As 2020 joins the company of previous annus horribilis, my sincere hope is that we might have rediscovered a proper appreciation of community, and of the truth that human beings need each other.
Someone once said, ‘ There’s no such thing as society." In as much as society is a network of “one anothers”, we’ve been reminded that we’re lost without it.
The Right Rev Dr Martin Fair is the current Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
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