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Solitude and Isolation

The following article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

For many people, the last fifteen months, with various forms and stages of lock-down, or restricted movement, have highlighted the difference between isolation and solitude. And one key to differentiation is how we experience and respond to silence.

In 1952, the American composer, John Cage, produced a piece of music (although that might be stretching the description) that is four minutes and thirty-three seconds long, during which the score instructs the performers not to play their instruments for the entire duration of the piece throughout three movements. In fact, it is not really silence, because the point of the composition is that the listeners would hear the sounds of the environment during the performance.

The human body is not designed to deal with complete, true silence. Confronted with absolute or even near silence, human brains and ears react in strange ways. Starved of input, our ears and brain essentially go into overdrive. Sounds that are typically drowned out in the din of modern life become, in some cases, unbearably loud. Some people will hear a high-pitched hiss, for example. Others have the strange experience of hearing their own blood pumping to their head, their breath, their heartbeat, as well as their digestive system’s cacophony.

So we are not designed to have absolute silence. That might be something to ponder as humans venture into the soundlessness of deep space. But we do have quite sensitive auditory systems, even if their frequency response deteriorates with age. And what do we do with this delicately and intricately designed sense of hearing? We put on headphones and drown out the world around us!

Menorca itself can be a lesson in listening and hearing. Walking along the beach at Es Grau, for example, there is the sound of lapping water or crashing surf, depending upon the conditions of wind and wave. Turn a corner, into the woods behind the beach, and the sound of sea becomes muffled, distant, or is lost altogether, leaving the wind rustling the branches of trees, or simply the calling of the different birds who reside there. Other parts of Menorca’s coast offer a similar range of sounds. At night, we become more aware of the call of night birds, or frogs, or insects that are too small to be seen, but which emit disproportionately loud noises. And that is even before the cicadas make their presence felt!

Here is one key to understanding solitude and isolation. Solitude is about taking advantage of being alone to immerse ourselves in the sounds of the nature around us, and feeling uplifted by the joyful symphonic offerings of nature. Isolation is about losing the freedom to choose whether or not to eliminate sounds. We may choose to go somewhere quiet to enjoy the environment, as in John Cage’s silence. We would be unlikely to enjoy the unwilling removal of auditory experience. I do not know anyone who would wish to be deaf – and, by the way, being deaf does not necessarily mean experiencing silence: the human body compensates for hearing impairment in ways that are sometimes strange.

I believe that we might see a glimpse of the difference between isolation and solitude, and the broader implications of the choices that they place before us in two other ways that have appeared during this time of pandemic.

One is the willingness (or reluctance) of people to conform to measures that affect public health, such as restrictions on movement and on gatherings, as well as the requirement to wear face coverings (mascarillas in Spain). The other is the enthusiasm (apart from the ‘anti-vax’ crowd) for vaccinations to prevent the spread of the virus.

The first is about taking steps to protect not only ourselves, but others as well. It is about willingness to accept limitations on our own freedom for the common good. It finds its expression rooted in the instruction of Jesus to “love your neighbour as yourself,” for example.

The second is about protecting self first, and consideration for the community only insofar as individuals within the community are protected. Apart from the selflessness of those who are willing to participate in trials, enthusiasm for the vaccination programme springs in large part from self-interest. I realise that this is not entirely and absolutely true: for example, I am very relieved that my own father has been fully vaccinated against COVID, and that vaccinated members of the church congregation are more easily able to resume an active life.

I find it interesting that nations that have focused on vaccinations are generally the same nations that have a higher proportion than normal of those who oppose or obstruct public health measures, with the rights of the individual trumpeted as trumping our obligations to the community. But as I have repeatedly said before, the rights of the individual are in fact conferred by consent of the community at large.

And this is where isolation creeps into the picture. One way to look at isolation is the loss of sensory contact with our surroundings. One consequence of that is the loss of connection to our world and the people and creatures in it. As a result we begin to lose sympathy, or empathy, and start increasingly to focus primarily on self interest. An antidote to this is to refocus on relationships with others, and to direct our attention towards those around us. So when we pray, for example, we turn our attention away from ourselves, looking towards the needs of others, and a divine presence.

The philosopher Simone Weil described the act of unmixed attention as prayer. She proposed that in the act of prayerful attention our behaviours are changed; some courses of action become impossible for us. When we attend fully to the suffering of another, we find ourselves shaped by the priorities of divine compassion rather than by our own preferences or desires. And so, as Saint Teresa of Ávila described it, prayer is “an act of love.”

As we find ourselves emerging from lock-down and enforced isolation, we might ask ourselves whether we have recognised the opportunities for solitude that have been offered, and taken full advantage of them, and whether or not an appreciation for solitude might prove to be something to carry forward – possibly in the form of silence that reinforces our connection to the world around. We might even find ourselves moved to pray!

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