I happened to be speaking on the subject of singleness exactly a month before lockdown was introduced. With hindsight I might have included some material on singleness in a pandemic but I wasn’t a sufficiently good prophet to foresee what would take place. However, the experience of being on my own in a flat for a couple of months has sharpened my thinking. It has helped me to understand the challenges of both family life and living alone at the moment- and I am sure it has got implications for the future.
It was re-reading a phrase from Mark Meynell’s book on depression When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend that got my brain going. He writes this- “Solitude is necessary for healthy living because it energises and replenishes; isolation cripples us because we were not wired by our Creator for loneliness.” I found that such a helpful summary- solitude is good and isolation is bad. It made sense of much of my experience of life. I often make the joke that I am an introvert in that I find my own company endlessly fascinating. But the reality is that is half-true and it is has sometimes perplexed me: why do I love being on my own at certain times and hate it at others? The answer is the difference between solitude and isolation.
Jesus himself commends solitude- especially when that is focused on spending time with our heavenly Father. “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6). That comes from the part of the Sermon on the Mount that emphasises the need for solitary religion- our fasting, praying and giving is to be simply a matter between us and God. This isn’t individualism- rather it is a safeguard against hypocrisy. For healthy Christian living (which actually is just healthy living) there needs to be an element of me relating to God without any danger of performance, an open sharing of thoughts and pouring out of our hearts. And you can’t spend long in the Gospels without Jesus realising this is necessary for Himself as you see Him withdrawing from the crowds to pray alone.
The church here is generous in its sabbatical provision- I am given a month of study leave every two years. When that comes round, I am normally pretty desperate to be on my own. I will try to find somewhere nice to stay, take a pile of books with me and spend a lot of time thinking and praying. It is bliss! Generally those offering to spend time with me during this period have to endure my agonisingly polite refusal. These are often the occasions when I rejoice most to know God and have the most fruitful ideas about future developments within the church. Over the years solitude has been healthy for me- and Jesus states that it is necessary for all of us.
That’s why this present time is particularly hard for young families. As everybody bounces off the walls any opportunity to think and reflect is wiped away. That is tough- and we shouldn’t be surprised if we are finding this period difficult. The only hope is to try to mitigate the worst effects of it- to see if it is possible to negotiate family responsibilities so as to get a little time alone with God. And for those of us who are living alone the call is to use this time to practice the helpful discipline of solitude with God, using the time to think and pray in His presence.
But- lest you think I am presenting an idealised view of being alone- there is another biblical perspective which picks up the problem of isolation. It comes as early as Genesis 2- “It is not good for the man to be alone.” At one level Adam’s existence was idyllic- enjoying fellowship with God in a beautiful garden. Yet more was necessary. Made in God’s image Adam was designed for relationship. Moreover, in the task of serving the Lord (which is the context in Genesis 2) isolation is not a good thing.
Again- that chimes with my experience. I enjoy being on sabbatical alone. I don’t enjoy trying to work alone. The occasions when I hate living alone are when I have a day of demanding meetings or decisions- and nobody with whom to share them. Those are the times when anxious thoughts tend to work around my mind and a sense of being overwhelmed can flood in. Over the years I have been grateful for the chance to talk to a wide variety of friends, which has certainly reduced the sense of isolation- something that is vital for those of us who sre single.
How does that work in a lockdown? Again it is not a surprise that many people living alone are finding this difficult, with a sense of being isolated. More than that working from home, cut off from colleagues, may not be an ideal solution in the long term. The Bible quite specifically describes this as a situation that is “not good”. Being candid, I was irritated by Boris Johnson’s speech last Sunday. It wasn’t so much the confused message (I am sympathetic about that- it is not a simple situation) as the absence of anything being said about social interaction, with the emphasis instead being on how people should work. That seemed to deny something essential about our humanity. I probably wasn’t the only one listening in with the question in my mind- “When can I see another human being again?”
What do we do with this? It is probably useful to understand that we shouldn’t be surprised if it is hard. More than that the Lord is profoundly sympathetic when we are finding it hard- He says to us, “Yes- I know it is not good.” And then we seek to mitigate the worst effects of the isolation. I am grateful for the way that has happened during this time. Technology has proved useful- and I have probably been in contact with more people than normal, which has made this time significantly less difficult than I feared. Equally, I am aware that I am privileged in having access to a wide circle through my job. Perhaps this post could act as a spur to those of us who are well supported to keep in contact with those more isolated- especially as the lockdown becomes more of a long haul. And, though I know this is tiring, it may be necessary for those of us living alone to take the initiative in making contact.
But these aren’t just principles for a lockdown. I am grateful for this time as an opportunity to learn a key lesson. Do pursue the discipline of solitude. There will always be something slightly lacking in our lives if we never shed the performance and get to the point of being alone with God. But try your best to avoid isolation. It is never good to carry a burden alone. Whether single or married it is vital that we share our lives, our joys and our struggles with another human being. After all that’s the way God made us.