The World Turned Upside Down
Being in isolation has given me plenty of time to think about, well, isolation. What being isolated means in our society, and why we’re finding it so tough and so counterintuitive. When John Donne said ‘No man is an island’ he pretty much hit the nail on the head. Being human is being a pack animal, and we instinctively associate isolation with failure, rejection, and ultimately a lesser chance of survival – ie being the runt of the litter. Socially, there’s no getting away from the tight bond between isolation and punishment. Whether it’s a kid being sent to the naughty corner, or an inmate sentenced to solitary confinement, enforced isolation is synonymous with penance, with breaking the spirit. It means you’ve done something wrong. There are more subtle connections. Not even the most dedicated introvert wants to be Billy No-Mates. When we describe someone as unlikeable, antisocial, or an inadequate joiner, the words are loaded with judgement, with disapproval, with spite. To be different or poorly socialised and therefore isolated from others makes the act of bullying almost acceptable in our society. Whether it’s the playground or the workplace, we are coached to fit in, assimilate, or risk the pain and stigma of isolation. Similarly, the social disapproval (covert or overt depending on your background) that comes with being single tells us that to self-isolate is wrong. Cultural norms are backed up with governments’ fiscal measures favouring married couples and families, and should you dare to go on holiday by yourself, expect to pay a single traveller supplement – there is quite literally a tax on isolation. Punishment indeed.
In the situation we currently find ourselves in, however, isolation comes into its own. You might say that it’s having a moment. Any fan of dystopian fiction knows that in an apocalypse, isolation is your friend. Norms are flipped on their heads as the unthinkable becomes reality. Safe spaces can only be found far from the diseased/zombified/murdering hoards, far from the influx of aliens/vampires/demons that are terrorising the earth. Those left will be the ones who made it out, who got away. And who are these isolators? Conspiracy theorists holed up in makeshift nuclear bunkers filled with guns. Swiss bankers sitting on the remaining Nazi gold who have hollowed out the Alps. Politicians who wave the banner of isolationism, often at great human cost, arguing for self-protection. Religious zealots looking down on worldly living, pained in their moral superiority. All believers in a fearful society, expecting the worst and preparing for one kind of judgement day or another. Oh how we’ve laughed at their morbid paranoia, their survivalist zeal. But could this in fact be their moment, could they all be right? When bad becomes good and the act of isolation, society’s default punishment, becomes the right thing to do both for ourselves and for each other, does it really mean the End Of Days?
Of course, enforced isolation on this scale is not without its own share of unevenly distributed punishments. Introverts, some might say, are also having their moment, staying calm and being productive, while us extroverts gnash our teeth and waste hours on social media trying to recapture some semblance of satisfactory levels of human interaction. Mobility is restricted unevenly, based on geographical location and level of risk, leaving many older people completely alone and afraid. Women are more at risk, both from the threat of domestic violence in a locked-down home and of exposure, as they are less likely to be able to work remotely, holding the majority of high-risk service and care sector jobs. Class and income divisions, always bubbling close to the surface, are thrown damningly under the spotlight as the rich jet off to their second homes while the poor are crammed under one multi-generational roof, heightening the risk of exposure and sickness. Some forms of isolation are indeed less equal than others, but when was punishment ever doled out evenly?
Isolation and punishment, isolation and fear – all of this leaves many of us are wondering right now what exactly it is we have done wrong? How did we fail? Why are we being punished? Is this really Mother Earth sending us to the naughty corner for burning too many fossil fuels or eating too much meat? Or is it just one of those things that happens, and we’re simply indulging in an all-to-human need to find an explanation for? Let’s face it – another down-side of isolation is that it leaves us with way too much time to ponder the mysteries of a life we would otherwise be going about living, hence the impetus to churn this out at all – back in the real world, enforced isolation would be the last thing on my busy little mind. In the meantime, as we sit in isolation contemplating the end of the world, it continues to turn and we continue to adapt, make do and survive, whether we want to or not. That same instinct that would normally encourage us to shun isolation is kicking in and saving us from ourselves, making us live the unliveable, accept the unacceptable, and push on, even though the world has, indeed, turned upside down. Isolation may be a punishment but it is not a death sentence, and we are indeed survivors.