Leaning into Loneliness

Quarantine is a funny thing. If you’re anything like me, you went into this time with great hopes, like a summer break with all those plans of productivity or the start of the term saying, “This time it will be different.” Maybe somewhere on your Google docs is the first page and a half of your great American novel, untouched since late-March. Maybe you have a Bible reading plan marked on your calendar with a week or two of perfect check marks that slowly slipped into complete neglect and discouragement. I certainly have at least ten different projects I’ve started, gotten a few lines into, and then forgotten or run from. 

Quarantine is a funny thing. It should mean all the time in the world. I calculated it, and just cutting out the time of walking to and from class we’re saving about an hour and a half each week. Somehow though, I’ve been more stressed than ever. I have so much more time to get coursework done and truly follow my passions uninterrupted. But that hasn’t happened. 

I keep confronting myself about why this peace, solitude, and productivity haven’t happened. Quarantine is different from any other time in any of our lives, so surely “This time it will be different.” But it’s not. In fact, anxiety and stress have reached an all time high for me. I was never a particularly anxious person. I was always pretty content to live in the moment. But now I find myself terrified of the future, terrified I’m not doing enough to set myself up for success coming out of quarantine, terrified that I don’t know what “success” means. 

Certainly this time has been disruptive and I could say that’s why I’m so anxious. I haven’t seen any of you lovely people at AQ for far too long. I’m adjusting to an online schedule, and I’m having to balance living at home with the liberty I’d grown accustomed to at Dartmouth. It’s a hard time, and it’s certainly very disruptive for a lot of people. If your current living situation is much more serious, then please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. Quarantine is not easy. 

But what I’m realizing now is that the best things aren’t easy, and I think that I was expecting that accomplishing my greatest hopes for quarantine would be easy. Intellectualized and abstracted from reality, I wanted those things–the consistent prayer life, the creativity, the productivity–more than anything else. So if I wanted them, why wouldn’t they be easy? But time and time again I found myself finding a distraction: Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, dropping hilarious content in groupchats (you’re welcome), and Netflix. Somehow these all took precedence over the things that I thought I really wanted the most. I would even find myself wasting time with these distractions when I didn’t even like the content. I’ve watched some really crappy movies in the past month. Like “below 50% Rotten Tomatoes score” crappy. 

So, lying awake at 2 a.m. after watching Jerry Maguire (I don’t care how much you like Tom Cruise, that’s a bad movie), I found myself at peak anxiety, which made no sense because I had watched stupid TV to relax. But that’s the thing, my hopes for quarantine were based on the belief that during this time I would be cutting out the noise and busyness of regular life. I thought that fast from unnecessary anxiety would just happen because I couldn’t go out in the world. But it didn’t.

It didn’t happen because I didn’t let it. Everything I filled my time with was something I chose. I chose to fill that hour and half of walking from class to class with Netflix, which as it turns out is not at all relaxing but in itself a source of anxiety. I could have chosen to pray, play guitar, listen to music, journal, exercise, watch an actually good movie, or any other number of relaxing and spiritually productive things. But I chose to fill that time with junk.

We’ve all heard the concept of a God-shaped hole in our hearts, attributed to either St. Augustine or Blaise Pascal. The loneliness and anxiety of quarantine is that hole and it’s pining stronger than ever to be filled. The impediments are so much fewer now that the busyness of everyday life is gone, so our hearts desire to fling us into God’s arms. However, there is a temptation to try to fill that hole with junk. Of course, this doesn’t work–the hole is God-sized and must be filled by leaning into the loneliness of quarantine–but we still try. God must fill that hole and to allow Him to do so we must turn to prayer. I do not claim to be a scholar on prayer or spiritual life, but Thomas Merton is. He calls for placing “prayer of the heart” before prayer of the mind, the true child-like yearning for God over the petitions and worries we bring to God. In his words:

Prayer means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for the capacity to hear and obey him. It is thus something much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our own deepest concerns.

To accomplish prayer Merton calls for quiet and solitude. We have the solitude, whether we want it or not right now. It’s up to us to choose and cultivate the quiet. 

In preparation for His ministry on this earth, Christ did not go out and get to know everyone He would be working with. He didn’t become a public figure shaking hands, and He certainly didn’t go find the latest distraction or “junk.” Instead he left society for solitude and quiet. When Satan offered him worldly things to fill his God-shaped hole he refused. Instead, He did what He truly wanted, what He most yearned for. And it wasn’t easy. He got killed for it. But as we know in this season of Easter, death did not conquer.

Christ calls us to do the same thing, but He does not promise it will be easy. If we follow this path step by step, first by leaning into the loneliness of quarantine, we’ll face hardships. We’ll miss a meme in a groupchat. We’ll be out of the loop when people talk about the last episode of The Last Dance. Maybe we’ll face something more serious. But we’ll get what in our minds and hearts what we truly want from this quarantine. “This time it will be different.”

In the song “Spanish Pipedream,” John Prine, the great folk singer and poet who passed from COVID-19 a month ago, sings, “Blow up your TV, throw away your paper, go to the country, build you a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, try and find Jesus on your own.” Taken literally or figuratively, these are words of truth for quarantine.  

Personally, I have decided I need to cut out all unnecessary screen time for the rest of quarantine. If you want to join me feel free to contact me and we can keep in touch on how that’s going for each of us. Unfortunately, it seems this terrible virus isn’t ending very soon so it’s not too late for the goals we set ourselves at the beginning. Let’s continue to pray for each other and keep in touch. I love you all.  

Joseph Collum, ‘22