All of Us, Alone Together

Teksti ja kuvitus: Viena Pentikäinen 

I have found myself reflecting on the early stages of the pandemic quite a bit in the last few weeks. I’ve tried to write about it and put it into words, but it has been surprisingly difficult. It seems like the moment summer began, the whole three months just disappeared into a fog. I recall the minutes dragging and fading into each other and the profound loneliness that days seemed to possess. 

As I am writing this, there was an announcement that gyms, libraries, and various other facilities will be closing again. Covid -cases are rising in Finland and many countries are preparing for lockdown as they head into the 3rd wave, which has been hypothesized to be the worst yet. And now in November, where the days are growing shorter and darker, we may be heading into the fog once more. 

A lot of this reflecting and interest comes from remembering how bad it got and wanting to be prepared. I have been interested in the ways people find to create comfort in an increasingly uncomfortable and uneasy situation. I created a Google Forms questionnaire where I asked what people have done to counteract corona loneliness as well as the mechanisms that they found helpful. Four main themes emerged.

  1. Routine & Hobbies:

The need for routine came up in the majority of submissions. It is such a simple form of comfort, but deceivingly vital. Routines are an exercise in control, and in chaos, the feeling of control can be therapeutic. Having days without routine or expectations can feel amazing when they are outliers, but being continuously adrift and rolling from one activity and day onto the next just increases the chaos. Some of the routines brought were designated study breaks, working out, and overall giving structure.

“Daily walks, maintaining a clean and organized home, and doing enjoyable things like singing, reading, and watching movies make alone time not so lonely for me.” 

Before the pandemic, I had never had to as actively consider and advocate for my well-being on a daily basis. It is quite easy to be passive about your well-being and to slip into a predetermined routine without active consideration. 

In the same realm, I remember one of the social media talking points of when the pandemic was just beginning was this call for people to rediscover hobbies. Though such optimistic sentiments and views on quarantine seem naive after everything that has happened, the sentiment still holds. 

I started to grow ungodly amounts of plants. I believe at my height I had lettuce, tomatoes, sunflowers, basil, parsley, lavender, avocados, aloe vera, paprika, garlic, and spinach along with my other regular house plants growing (or attempting to grow) in my room.

“Bought house plants, always having a podcast playing in the background, sending more voice messages (feels more personal!). I’ve also been getting back into writing poems and that has helped a lot with the anxiety caused by social isolation!”

There is a reason why activities such as knitting, painting, or similar hobbies are so important and a source of comfort. Personal ambition and abstract goals for the future don’t yield tangible or immediate results, and so focusing on the concrete things you can accomplish right away can be healing. There is an incredible comfort to be derived from creation.

“I have tried to make sport (unisport ryhmäliikunta and going to gym) a part of my routine because at this time all the days start to feel the same and if you have some routines you’ll feel like there’s some kind of structure in your week.”

  1. Connection: 

Something else that came through from the submissions is the importance of actively securing and creating connections. These can come in the form of long video calls and zoom parties, as well as socially distant walks or finding other ways to bring people into your day. If possible and safe, returning to family periodically can also be a good change in scenery. And even if not in person or online, finding ways of connecting with others is important.

“Keeping a Zoom call open (muted) while studying, so we can have our breaks together with friends.”

Zoom parties and hangouts have been a staple of pandemic socialization. I have a love-hate relationship with them. In the beginning, I did enjoy the novelty and those times of connection. But in the end, I think there is something so incredibly empty in them, especially when ending those calls. Though Zoom and similar platforms provide the means to connect, sometimes it simply isn’t enough. 

There is a lot that these online platforms cannot replace when it comes to socialization, and though there are means of connecting with people through video or messages, they don’t fill the days in the same ways. It doesn’t replace the hundreds of small encounters that you would have when going to lectures or while in line at Unicafe. That is why it is so important to find little moments of connection and connectivity, whether it is with other people in person or online, or on an individual level.

“My grandparents live in another country and I haven’t seen them for more than 18 months, so I’ve been cooking a lot of food inspired by things my grandmother usually makes for me. Filling my flat with the familiar smells makes me feel safe and warm.”

  1. Affection and Touch-starvation: 

“Lots of one night stands.”

In the 1940s, Rene Spitz studied infant mortality in orphanages to try to find out why it was so high even as the children received appropriate food and medical care. They found out that if babies didn’t receive physical affection and touch, they could die. Prolonged sensory and emotional deprivation was deadly. 

I returned to this finding a lot last spring. Humans have a fundamental need for touch, for romantic or platonic affection and closeness. The lack of that can be a source of severe deprivation. The terms used for this phenomenon vary, but the ones I use are touch-starvation and skin hunger. The nature of this virus and the pandemic cuts to the core of that and breaks away many of the ways that we would fill that need — such as hugs from friends, family, or romantic partners. Some of us live with partners or friends and are in regular contact that helps with this, but many don’t.  Asking for affectioning was difficult even before the pandemic. It can feel taboo and strange since so much of touch and the need to be touched is perceived to be sexual. 

There is no simple solution for touch-starvation because the things that prohibit us from fulfilling this need are societal and ingrained. Finland for one is quite touch-averse and is perhaps a part of the reason why loneliness and isolation are so pervasive here. But perhaps it begins as understanding that it is a need and a human requirement. Admitting to vulnerability and articulating the need for affection can be incredibly difficult, but necessary. 

4. Imagination:

“I’ve had sex, alone. Me and my roomie ordered Satisfyers for both of us.”

When I was a kid I had a rather active imagination. I had this habit of slipping into the books I read and creating stories and worlds in their image. I’d create fantastical stakes, political conflicts, and heroic triumphs and retributions. And though this habit never really went away, it became much more present during the pandemic. 

I don’t know if this has been a common response to the pandemic, I haven’t brought it up in earnest to enough people. But I have to imagine that it isn’t too strange of a mechanism; when you can’t go anywhere else, you go into yourself and your mind. During times of stress and chaos, the human mind finds ways of comforting itself. Imagination can bring a sense of normalcy or just fill the empty days, or it can help create a softer reality to rest in admits the storm.  

It can be difficult to draw the line between daydreaming as comfort and daydreaming as dysfunction. When it slips into the latter realm, it can be a greater source of isolation and withdrawal in the long term. There have been some preliminary studies into maladaptive daydreaming during the pandemic and how this kind of behavior grows stronger during times of crisis. Prolonged daydreaming can warp and detach one’s sense of time and self; enforcing the loneliness that brought you there. 

There is no simple solution or line because, for those who are prone to this kind of self-protection, the temptation is there. In hard times it can be so tempting to numb yourself from the world and disappear into imagination, or social media, Netflix, alcohol, and all the other things that ease existence. I don’t know if I have a more persuasive counter-argument, other than that perhaps, in the end, humanity and being is worth it.

“I listen to The Weeknd and imagine that I’m chilling in a hazy party and falling in love in my own bathroom.”

I have been thinking a lot about what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be. I’ve thought a lot about kids like my little brother who will have to spend critical developmental years of their lives away from people their age. About people in bad family situations and without financial stability. Those in areas with a worse Covid situation and those who have lost someone. And I worry about everyone around me and those I cannot see and those who will never come back from this isolation. 

We as humans are already such lonely creatures. Our capacity and need to create community is simultaneously the source of our greatest loneliness. And I think modernity has only increased our capacity for it. What allowed humans to stay alive all those hundreds of thousands of years ago was community and the trust we place in each other. Margaret Mead said that when going through archeological evidence, the first signs of civilization are when you discover a healed femur bone meaning that people took the time to care for someone and nurse them to health. Our civilization and humanity are built on connection and each other. 

This loneliness, of course, began long before 2020, we had a loneliness epidemic far before this pandemic. We have needed each other and still do, but have tried to learn not to. Individuality has given us great ambition and self-actualization, but what we have lost is also great. We become islands and learn to believe we were born to be islands. 

There are long-term benefits of crisis; it can help underline the issues within a given system or structure, within an institution, or within ourselves. Many of us were lonely before the pandemic and will continue to be. But we don’t have to be. 

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