I have been a widow living alone for nearly ten years. Now in my 70s, older and weathered, I have learned a thing or two about isolation and its seeming opposite: connection within the world. I say “seeming.”
The year 2020 put a new twist on the meanings of isolation and connection. It introduced isolation as a necessity for wellbeing, as well as cause for mental suffering.
I remember vividly on March 11 hearing a reporter say, “The World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.” Time stopped momentarily. Global pandemic!
A few days later at dawn, I stood in a long line of elderlies, each with a mask standing six feet apart. We waited to be allowed in the supermarket one by one, only to find empty shelves. I came home with a rationed bottle of sanitizer.
By December, more than 350,000 in the U.S. had died because of the pandemic. Most of them died in isolation without the physical presence of their family or friends to hold their hands or to kiss goodbye. Loved ones kept vigil at a distance, feeling helpless and hollow. Meanwhile countless others endured the unpleasant but less lethal symptoms of COVID-19, alone at home.
Before the pandemic, research showed social isolation to be the biggest predictor of mortality, more than lack of exercise or a poor diet. ‘If you want to live long, do not live isolated,’ the scientists suggested. Now isolation is key to a longer life.
The impact of social isolation lands differently, depending on an individual’s inner and outer resources, privileges, and living circumstances. Social isolation has broken marriages in some cases and in others created more solid relationships. Simple comforts — hugs, tea with friends — have been minimized. Counseling and support groups are in the form of a cold, flat screen.
Carrie, who lost her wife to terminal cancer shortly before the pandemic, felt a need to be alone after her partner’s death. She went to the cabin in the Northwoods that they built together and spent three months in isolation. She told me it was an excruciatingly painful time. The solitude was a long, dark tunnel she had to go through to touch the light at the other end. But she knew that it was the right thing to do to honor her grief and their love, and to wait for an emergence of the meaning of life without her wife.
When isolation is intentional, we may feel alone but not lonely. Many, including myself, cherish alone time as a prerequisite to relating to the outer world with authenticity and clarity. I feel deeply for those to whom social isolation was not a choice but a predicament. Or worse, a verdict — which is the case for some elderlies in nursing homes, single people estranged from family and community, the imprisoned, the undocumented in hiding. The pandemic made challenging situations more difficult.
I know something about the pain of feeling abandoned. The isolation can activate shame, anger, grief about not belonging, and the fear of not being wanted.
I am old enough to be able to look back at those moments of my own desolation and know in my heart that there was something larger — a giant net of interconnection — that always held me.
No matter how alone we feel, we are intricately and inexplicably a part of the world. I love the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s reminder that a paper is made of all non-paper elements: trees, sunshine, rain, workers. In that way I am made of all non-me elements.
In my older age, I can clearly see how I am made of you all, and the trees, the four-legged, the bees, the stars.
Isolation and connection are not separate, nor are they opposites. Inside the isolation is an indelible seed for connection and relatedness. Inside the connection is a longing for a solitary space to discern the ground of our being. It is like the Yin and Yang symbol in which seeming opposites enable one to deepen and nurture the other.
Kyoko Katayama (she/her) is a retired psychotherapist of 35 years. She published a chapbook of poetry and visual art, “Wings above the Sea: A story and images of loss and transformation.” Kyoko is also a death educator and teacher at Common Ground Meditation Center.