Loneliness, brought on by isolation, is a common emotion during this coronavirus lockdown; and for some segments of the population, it can be deadly.
In fact, recent research shows that, among the elderly, it can be as deadly as many chronic diseases.
For some of us, of whatever age, this emphasis on social distancing has brought on an almost Kafkaesque feeling of powerlessness in light of the quarantine which has erased the boundary between freedom and constraint.
As someone has said, “Many of us are in danger of feeling like Robinson Crusoe with Netflix.”
There’s a good deal of concern in the medical community about the long-term effects of isolation, whatever one’s age.
A study from 2009 looked at hospital employees in China who were exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which like COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus.
The research found that, three years later, having been quarantined was a predictor of post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Later studies have validated this finding.
It is evident that, even if you are younger, loneliness can lead to angst, dread, and sadness.
Surprisingly enough, some unfortunates are also lonely, even when not alone. I am such a person.
I was born lonely. I have a history of loneliness. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m the sine quo non of loneliness, the ne plus ultra of solitude. Loneliness is my unseen guest at every meal. It is the troupe of my life, the mise-en-scene of my story.
In perhaps his best movie, even better than “Citizen Kane,” Orson Wells is the “Third Man,” a dealer in diluted antibiotics in post-war Vienna, and Joseph Cotton, his old friend, reproaches him for what he does.
They are at the very top of a Ferris wheel at the Prater Amusement Park. Wells answers him, suggesting that he stop being so melodramatic. “Look down there.
Would you feel pity if any of those dots stopped moving?” Sometimes, particularly when alone and lonely, I feel no more significant than one of Wells’ dots.
When I was 17 and new in the Navy, I was 2,000 miles away from home, broke, and lonely.
Thirty-six years later, when I got out, I was 2,000 miles from home, broke, and lonely.
I suppose that some would shake their heads and say that I hadn’t progressed very far.
On the other hand, I had at least learned to manage my loneliness. You have to be willing to work at it. Some people don’t seem to want to help themselves.
I once asked a sailor, “What’s the biggest problem in the Navy? ignorance or apathy?” He replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Don’t let that be your attitude about your loneliness.
There’s been a good bit of discussion in the news lately about whether or not the metaphor of “War” should be used in the battle against the coronavirus.
Personally, I think it’s an apt way to describe the battle that we are in against this global pandemic.
I also think that we who are locked down and isolated are in a war against loneliness. Let me, then, share with you some of my hard-learned lessons gained through twenty years at sea, twenty years of isolation and loneliness, about how to deal with this plague of the mind and soul.
Mine are all self-help solutions and are more positive than other alternatives I’ve heard of.
For example, one of my neighbors owns liquor stores, and he told me that his sales have gone up 30% since the lock down. You can’t drink your way out of loneliness.
One of the most important things that you can do to combat loneliness is to simply stay in touch with family and friends and maintain relationships however you can.
For the average person, that’s possible with the telephone, texting, Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, etc. If all else fails, write letters.
I envy military personnel today because they generally have more or less constant lines of communication with their loved ones and friends via computer and cell phones.
Back in the day, we were lucky to get mail once a month at sea, and I can remember paying about $17 for three minutes to call the States from the Philippines in the 1960s, and you had to make reservations at the phone center days in advance.
It also helps to have someone to call, which is not always the case. It’s good to remember that you have to be a friend to have a friend.
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in my community college classes which went all online a few days ago.
Students who were reluctant to speak up in face-to-face classes now enthusiastically participate in online discussions.
The anonymity of the computer keyboard has apparently given them the confidence to reach out and express their opinions more freely.
Whenever one of my ships got underway for a long cruise, six months to the Mediterranean or eight months to the far Pacific, I would always keep a daily journal.
Even today, I refer to some of those journals as I write these columns. Of course, the most important official journal on a ship is the Ship’s Log, in which the Officer of the Deck records the ship’s progress and daily activities, and which is a legal document.
There’s an old tradition of writing the log for the mid-watch (0000-0400) on Christmas Eve in poetry. I once did that anchored in Izmir, Turkey, known by the Greek name of Smyrna during the Crusades, and now the jumping off place for excursions to Ephesus, as in Ephesians in the Bible.
In a recent New York Times article, Scott Kelly, the former astronaut who spent a year on the International Space Station, suggested that keeping a routine and writing a journal could help ease loneliness. Keeping a journal helps one stay focused and in touch with themselves. Unfortunately, it’s one of those good ideas that too often “goes south” after a few entries.
The humorist, Mark Twain, noted this tendency in his book, “Innocents Abroad” (1867), the account of a cruise he took to Europe and the Holy Land onboard the sidewheel steamer, Quaker City.
He said that no sooner than they left the port of New York and were only a few miles at sea that “Some twenty or thirty gentlemen and ladies sat down in the salon under the swaying lamps and for two or three hours wrote diligently in their journals.
Alas, that journals so voluminously begun should come to so lame and impotent a conclusion as most of them did! . . . not ten of the party could show twenty pages of journal for the succeeding twenty thousand miles of voyaging.”
Although yours can be a modest effort, there are some famous ones: “The Diary of Ann Frank: (1947), Daniel Defoe’s “A Diary of the Plague Year” (1722), Leonardo da Vinci’s “Notebooks” (1519), etc. Who knows, 100 years from now, someone may find, read, and profit from your words.
Of course, for someone who has always been an outlier, music has been a consolation.
My taste is very eclectic, picked up in the places I’ve been: klezmer in Israel; flamenco in Spain; calypso in the Caribbean; marabi in South Africa, etc.
When I was a kid on my first ship in the Mediterranean, my buddy from Monticello, Mississippi and I had an old record player down in the engine room, and we would slip off late at night and play our collection of Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lee Hooker, and Jimmy Reed records like the displaced rednecks we were.
Although the ambient temperature hovered around 110 degrees on a cool night, because of the super-heated steam in the boilers, we still fantasized that we were someplace else. Later on, when I had a little more money, I remember passing through Sasebo, Japan, on an ammunition ship and buying a Sony shortwave receiver at the base PX which I still listen to, especially during this lockdown.
I suspect that for many of us, music can be both a comfort and an inspiration in our isolation.
Exercise is another sure way to deal with loneliness.
I always enjoyed jogging, logging over 1,000 miles a year until I turned 56 and felt my knees giving way, I jogged every day on ships, on the steel decks, because for me the mental benefits were almost as important as the physical.
I had to be careful in heavy seas and not get thrown over the side, but that kept me alert.
There’s something spiritual, almost a religious experience, that occurs in a person’s body and being when he or she extends themselves physically and pushes their body to the limits of its endurance.
Call it an epiphany, your “second wind,” or whatever, but it’s like your body shifts into overdrive, your feet get lighter, and you can feel the end of the course pulling you to the goal.
Whenever I went on deployment, I would also take it as an opportunity to get in shape and lose a few pounds.
I’ve always been a closet vegetarian, and sometimes I’d go for a whole cruise and never eat meat.
More than once, as I got older and my uniform got tighter, I’d go on my “paper cup diet,” where the only thing I’d have for dinner was what I could pile into a Dixie cup.
A few months of that quack plan and your clothes fit again.
I remember taking the annual Marine Corps physical fitness test when I was stationed at Marine Recruit Depot, San Diego, back in the 1970s. I was always the oldest guy on the First Recruit Training Battalion staff, and it killed me to let some of those young First Lieutenants beat me on the timed endurance run.
I’d run the route, along the airport fence, every day, rain or shine, to stay in shape so they couldn’t.
Some of them, after they left Quantico, were pretty lackadaisical about their training regimen, and it showed.
Now, however, in my twilight years, I just walk. I’ve found that even two or three miles every day helps maintain my mental equilibrium.
And that leads to my last suggestion about dealing with loneliness while in isolation: spend some time thinking about the meaning of your life and your place in the world.
Use the time alone to rearrange your mental furniture.
As a frustrated philosophy major and a lifelong seeker, I often turn to the example of the French thinker, Rene Descartes, when I’m trying to unravel the problems of the day. His method was to ask, “What can I know for certain?; and his famous explanatory phrase was “Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.”
A devout Catholic layman in a troubled medieval world, Descartes tempered his skepticism with a belief in the ultimate triumph of faith and reason. We should do the same.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com