What do you hear in your silence?
I confess, the practice of solitude is not hard for me. By preference I am a creature of silences, long thoughts, and deep abstractions, always just out of step with time.
Some of you are able to jump into life. You swim in it, splashing around. Some of you are able to experience things to the fullest, fully present in each moment. Some of you laugh in the surf and dive past the shallows into deep breakers.
I stay on the shore. I watch many of you, seeing waves and ripples. It’s a constant mystery how you deal with the ocean, salt in your eyes and sea breeze tugging. It’s much calmer on the shore where it’s quiet. It’s much easier to think over here.
It’s easy to feel my shore is unchanged by the larger waves crashing along the beach right now. History indicates this will not be the case.
At some point, the Jaws theme will play, even for me. Too dramatic? Very likely, and cliched too. How’s this – at some point, the Titanic soundtrack will echo, even on my beach. Solitude is comfortable for me; it may be hell for you. But the real struggle begins when solitude is no longer an option – of refuge or of last resort – for either of us. When everyone is out of the water, but the beach itself is also closed.
A tsunami is a giant wave. As you may recall from highschool physics, a wave has two parts – a peak and the lowest part, a trough. If a tsunami’s trough hits a beach first, it appears as though all the water has receded into the horizon.
It’s an inevitable calm, and it inevitably cannot last. When the trough hits, the peak will follow – and the peak’s strength corresponds to the depth of the trough, equal-opposite.
We are in the trough right now. Not everyone, to be sure: some of you have already experienced a glimpse of the peak. But in general, if you live in the U.S., we are in the trough before the projected state-by-state peaks of covid-19 cases. The peaks will start to hit in mid-April.
We’ll need each other from a distance. I’ll need the knowledge of how to stand in the midst of breakers, whether I want to be there or not. You may need to know where the shady beach-spots are, how to sit quietly and pay attention. Each of us will be simultaneously out of our element. None of us will have the luxury of that most ingrained of human responses, seeking strength in numbers during times of trouble.
It will feel as though John Donne taunts us: everyone will feel as though they are, indeed, an island.
Perhaps we’ll hear echoes of each other more clearly in our individual silences?
Wherever you are on your beach, waves or whirlpool or sand, listen for me. I echo through books and verse, scraps of paper you find in the tides. I’ll look for your mark in the traces of salt and tide, the distant laughter on the sea breeze.
None of these things are what we’re used to. They place each of us out of our element, barred from human contact and banned from comfortable isolation. They bring each of us closer to one of two places – insanity, or understanding. Solitude leaves you alone with yourself and forces you to examine whatever echoes of other people you find around you. Solitude may push each of us towards fostering our own version of that most essential of human experiences, empathy.
And in the meantime, at least John Donne isn’t contagious.
‘No Man is an Island’, John Donne
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 any manner of thy friends 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.