When I looked up the etymology of ‘island’ I was surprised to find that it has a different etymology to the word ‘isle’: ‘island’ has roots in Old English; it has always meant land surrounded by water. ‘Isle’ traces its ancestry back to the Latin insula, which meant ‘island’.
Insula also features in the etymology of our modern word ‘insular’, which traveled from meaning ‘pertaining to or of an island’ in the 1600s to ‘being cut off from other people’ in the 1700s.
The other word that can trace its roots back to insula is ‘isolated’:
“standing detached from others of its kind”, 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island.”
Another etymology I am interested in is that of the world ‘alone.’ Its meaning hasn’t altered at all in its history; it has always meant to be by one’s self, solitary. What I love about it though – what I find quite poetic – is that our modern spelling of alone is a contraction of all ane from the Old English all ana.
All one. By your own and one self. Wholly alone.
Recently, we have all been in lockdown. Some of us have been squished into living quarters shared with flatmates or family members. So, isolated from the world at large but far from being wholly alone. Some people have been living by themselves; whether or not this solitude has been glorious or something akin to solitary confinement will have depended upon the person experiencing it and the conditions under which they were isolated.
Donne wrote “No man is an island” in the winter of 1623, while he was recovering from a life threatening illness. In the spiritual aloneness of a near-death experience, he wrote a reflective prose work of which this is one part:
“No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”
All of us, whether hunkered down in little groups or all-one, will have been aware of our society grappling with the Coronavirus beyond the four walls of our accommodation; our isolation has happened in the context of a communal emergency. Domestically, we have been functioning as little self-contained home units; we are islands. Some people have been able to sense themselves as islands belonging to a nation; some will have lost the sense of this. How are we to reconnect with them? Why might they find it hard to maintain a sense of belonging?
Involved in mankind.
Donne was able to contextualise his individual illness and possible death as a universal experience. We have all been forced to isolate from each other, but this has been in the name of a societal – as well as individual – good. People are talking about the fact that our world has irrevocably changed because of the pandemic, that things will never return to normal. That’s fine with me; the ‘old normal’ all too often operated as if everyone was all one, was not a piece of something larger. I’d like a ‘new normal’ where we all consider ourselves to be “involved in mankind.” Where no man is an island.
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thineowne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
From Devotions upon Emergent Occassions and severall steps in my Sicknes, Meditation 17, written in the winter of 1623.
Living in a society in thrall to a pandemic is new for many of us in Australia; it certainly is for me. The experience of living in isolation to counter the infectious nature of this particular coronavirus is one part of this adventure that we all have to share as a community, and yet it is something that we can only undertake alone or in small household groups.
Most of us have not been constrained to staying in one place for long, with contact with our networks reduced to whatever we can access on the internet or by phone. I can see that attitudes to self-isolation or lockdown vary. Some people are assuming that the risk has been overstated and have not even thought about preparing for it. Those of us that do take the threat seriously have been confounded by the footage of multitudes of oily bodies packed onto Bondi Beach. Over the weekend, as I went on my (responsibly socially-distanced) daily walks in my local park, I was disquieted to see large groups of people crammed onto picnic rugs or strolling shoulder to shoulder, apparently assuming that contagion happens to other people.
Some people are alarmed by the pandemic, and are prepping for it as if we are looking down the barrel of a nuclear winter. Some of the worst behaviours have been manifested by the panic buyers – those wild-eyed, grim-faced hoarders of toilet rolls, prepared to trash the social norms that hold our society together in order to push and shove their way to grab that last bottle of hand sanitiser.
I find the Hunger Games style panic buyers and the “it’ll never happen” brigade to be equally worrying for all that they occupy different ends of whatever bizarre spectrum they’re on: neither seem to be processing information and thinking about consequences. Both are reacting to the ‘feels’. We are all at odds. It is against this background of communal dissonance that we are preparing to lock ourselves down, to last out weeks of living alone (if you’re like me) or with just the same few flatmates or family members, day after day. The Premier of the state where I live in Australia – Victoria – announced just last night that all non-essential services would be locked down. It’s official: with just the digitised anger and anxiety of Twitter to accompany us, we are to isolate ourselves from the real life presence of most other human beings for most of the time.
I’ve been here before
I am as new to coping with pandemics as anyone else, but in terms of social isolation I do have some form and this, I think, I hope, will help me understand the challenge of the weeks ahead.
My own bouts of past isolation arose because of poverty. Working as a freelancer in the arts and community sectors saw me living, precariously, on low wages, on short contracts, with short stints on welfare in between or when contracts were cut short due to the funding running out. I was bedevilled by unpaid invoices, late paid invoices, organisations that were tardy in paying my wages, or my dole accidentally getting cut off (Australia’s social security bureaucracy is notorious for its inefficiency). Despite careful budgeting, I would sometimes just run out of cash. Although this belongs to my past, I have strong visceral memories of what it is like to starve for a few days, or to subsist on a limited unhealthy diet of cheap carbohydrate (basically toast) for a few weeks. It was horrible. I lived permanently frightened.
A psychological relic of my past is that, alongside hunger pangs, I have indelible memories of what prolonged isolation did to the inside of my head. When I used to run out of, or low on, cash I would not just have to skip meals but could also find myself unable to afford phone credit, internet credit, or public transport fees. If the hunger went on for too long then I would find the physical symptoms of that – the shaking legs, stomach aches, dizziness – would make going for long walks impossible; I just didn’t have the stamina; I was ill from hunger. This means that while I was waiting for the next pay date, or for an overdue invoice to be paid, I would be unable to leave my home, or phone, text, email, or otherwise connect with other people. I have had to live like this for a week on a few occasions; I once lived like this for six weeks and I really thought I would go mad.
I would be stuck at home, alone, with my thoughts. I would try, very hard, to distract myself and, to some extent, would succeed: initially I used the time alone at home to write, or to rehearse, or to clean, or to plan, or to research. But, as the physical hunger and emotional stress grew day by day, it became harder to focus on these things. My head would ache and my eyes would blur from physical fatigue making concentration difficult. This was a constant reminder of my situation that it was impossible to ignore. Did you know that you can ache from hunger, literally? I used to, and, no matter how hard I worked at steering my thoughts to affirmations or inspirations or disciplines or work, my body would urgently remind me of the material reality of my situation. I could distract myself up to a point, but beyond this distraction was impossible. Then there would be no respite from the fizz and hiss of anxiety or the heavy surges of dread. Getting over these dark thoughts took longer than recovering from the physical hunger once the money started flowing again. This, for me, was where the real test of resilience lay. I learnt to keep one small part of my head separate from the rest; this couldn’t do much by way of work or optimism but it could, at least, take note of the exact nature of the waves of emotion as they lapped at me. This gave me some sense of control so that on my better days I could mitigate the effects and on my worst days, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “not choose not to be.”
Finding a toehold
I realised that, even though my life would be put on hold for a while, and even while the conditions that forced this were damaging, I could still retain a toehold on whatever projects I had been temporarily forced to stop working on, or even on the kind of life I wanted to envisage for myself. This doesn’t sound like much, but it allowed me to start to rebuild when conditions improved.
I survived my past, somehow, and I am proud of that; I owe much of my current resilience and ability to cope with a crisis to that survival.
Because I am in a better place in my life now, I think that, during the next few weeks of isolation, my mind won’t stray into dangerous territory. I do keep reminding myself that self-isolation due to Covid-19 will be a different type of aloneness, with different conditions, for better or for worse, than my previous periods of isolation. But I also keep reminding myself that I have this history of survival to draw upon. I don’t exactly know what the forthcoming experience will be like; I just know that it could be challenging. Having had my resilience undermined previously by isolation, I know the nature of that challenge will be psychological. Having outlasted previous crises, I must admit that I’m confident I’ll make it through with my mental health intact this time. It probably won’t be all bad. I’m an introvert and I’m determined to enjoy a few – maybe many – quiet days indulging my own whims. And I must admit to a curiosity as to what exactly will test me during my time alone: what rogue ideas or moods will bubble to the surface? I’m going to use them as fodder for my writing. I am alert for them, but not alarmed.
People who subsist on welfare will probably have had similar experiences to me. People who haven’t may have no idea what to expect during periods of self-isolation; for some of them, maybe many of them, the nature of the challenge will be unexpected, perhaps difficult, and perhaps even radical.
“While we know social isolation has a negative impact on health, we don’t really know much about what the effects of compulsory (and possibly prolonged) social isolation could be. But we expect it could increase the risk of loneliness in the community.” (Michelle H Lim and Johanna Badcock)
Since those past experiences of hardship and isolation, I have long been interested in how you can embed resilience in your life, especially in your creative practice. How do you find those tiny but valuable toeholds that let you cling on for just long enough to figure out how you climb a mountain? When your life has been stripped of the resources – time, money, human – how do you keep an idea, an intention, alive? What tactics can you use? How can you carve out those little pockets of awareness, of courage, of cunning in an otherwise besieged brain? I’m going to use these Solitary Mind blogs to try and share some perspectives and provocations that might help.
If you are finding the experience of lockdown to be unnerving or discomfiting, then be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself the time to adjust, and then start a dialogue with your inner-self. And take reassurance from the knowledge that this won’t last forever. I survived being cut off from society in the past, and so will you now.
Author Josie George has written a remarkable resource called Inside – A Guide. Due to health conditions, Josie has been forced to spend prolonged periods of time inside her house. She has written a guide as to how you can find meaning and resilience under such conditions.
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