In the time of grief: Solitude and solidarity

In the weeks since COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic (WHO, March 2020), various metaphors have been deployed to understand the situation we are collectively facing as well as our place within it. The pandemic has been variously likened to war, religious reckoning, an indictment on the capitalist system or even the natural world re-asserting itself against human encroachment. While these narratives importantly frame an external struggle, it is also worth turning inward. There we can observe a struggle that is at once lonely and whole in its collective embrace of us all within the calling of grief.

Grief may be expressed in the experience of loss: the collective loss of certainty, order and predictability by which we live our lives and plan for our futures; the loss of trust in the supposedly infallible systems of government, media, health, education and commerce. It may also be expressed in the experience of anxiety: disclosing itself at the site of reckoning with our mortality in proximal, immediate terms; manifesting again in the questioning of our significance in a world that can seem to callous and indifferent. In grief, the arc of order and time may bend backwards. Many more losses are currently occurring, the present brings forward the future’s loss like storm clouds from over the temporal horizon. Many losses are anticipated in the days, months and even years to come. Fortunately, we bring to bear many psychological tools, which I will categorize as ‘coping‘ and ‘resilience‘ strategies. I also argue that we may collectively benefit from attending to the process of healing from a grief that simultaneously confines us and connects us. Our work is not passive; even in our solitude, perhaps especially in our solitude–we may bear witness to a greater whole. This emerging solidarity may be a powerful and necessary social adaptation for seeing us through the challenges of the new century. Through cultivating the practices of both solitude and solidarity, we may have a path towards healing while expanding our capacity to care for others and ourselves.

Coping and Resilience

We are privileged to have an array of social, political and healthcare expertise deployed in service of helping us to adjust and adapt to our current conditions. As mentioned, the stability of these conditions clouds over the temporal horizon, existing somewhere between a temporary inconvenience and a new normal that will require a fundamental restructuring of social and economic institutions. However, we can be certain that there is a zeitgeist regarding the role of expertise and governance to steward us through this very difficult time. As a mental healthcare professional, my colleagues and I have been presented with a unique challenge and opportunity to situate ourselves on the frontlines and behind the scenes shaping policy. After all, there is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating mental health conditions all over the world. In response, there has been a massive promotion of mental health hygiene and individual interventions. The interventions are highly varied although they essentially collate into two categories: one to do with coping, i.e., recovering from short-term, ‘shock’ stress and the second to do with resilience, i.e., looking beyond survival towards longer-term adaptations so one can grow and even thrive under continued conditions of stress.

In my daily psychology practice, I depend on these strategies. There are real-world, immediate benefits to interventions such as setting goals, structuring one’s time and activities, monitoring mood, self-care and setting boundaries for self and others. I believe these strategies to be fairly well-thought out and moderately to highly effective. I can further testify firsthand to the goodwill and integrity of my colleagues, many of whom are putting themselves on the frontlines to serve and care for others.

Individualism & Positivity

However, there are undeniably subtle and pervasive discursive forces operating to correlate mental health along an axis of material and social privileges that also selectively advantage individuals with traits of self-reliance, positivity, and deference to authority. Not coincidentally, these traits coincide with each other and amalgamate into worldviews that are generally capitalistic and neoliberal. One could argue that these worldviews have created conditions of prosperity and longevity that are unparalleled through history. It can equally be argued that these worldviews create massive strains that must be collectively harbored by nearly every facet of the natural world (with some people and places bearing more than others). These strains are viral; they are apparent and multiplying.

And it has a calamitous impact on our mental health. Since the mid 1990s in fact, there has been growing and public decry over the evidence that despite having ever more sophisticated and supposedly efficacious treatments for mental health, our problems are only getting worse. Critics have contended that mental health symptomatology–especially now–is largely a reflection of systemic inequities and will most effectively be remediated at the main source, i.e., through basic income and healthcare measures. The limitations of our existing psychological tools is that they are, by and large, best implemented and disseminated on an individual scale. Those with the most privileged access to these tools tend to have traits of self-reliance, positivity, and deference to authority–which the tools themselves subtly reinforce. What is often marginalized or elided is the consideration of those who have material and social hardships that are the result of systemic rather than individualistic deficiencies.

A corollary to individualism is the belief in the power of the individual. In modern times, this has been psychologized into the construct of positivity. Although in the margins, a few mental health activists have railed against the status-quo endorsement implied is such positions as well as its opaque disciplinary mechanics, which appear to have designs in a Western religious and capitalist ethic. Of course, there is nothing inherently deleterious with positivity. In fact, there is excellent research supporting its use and applications towards enhancing physical and mental wellbeing. Yet despite this there seems to be a gathering social undercurrent waxing against the drudgery and not-so-subtle paternalism of positivity in its evangelical forms. This is nowhere better evidenced than in the aisles of bookstores, where one might stoop and pause at a gallery of titles such as F*ck Feelings and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. These books seem to superficially reject not positivity but all emotional vicissitudes although I am told that their actual content reinforces the conservative, pragmatic and individualistic worldviews of Western psychology. The anticlimax is not altogether surprising. Self-help is a paragon of capitalist industry and its new wave of prophets are less doom-sayers and more of a proselytizing breed diversifying into new markets. Mental health’s own populist uprising. Nevertheless, the critical movement within the psychological and social sciences that I had alluded to earlier is not only concerned with defining the problem but also the solutions as well. The sub-discipline of liberation psychology is an excellent place to start.

Yet undeniably, in these times of pandemic, isolation and fear remain massive obstacles to health and wellbeing. We clearly need the tools that have been developed and refined by traditional psychological and social sciences. However, the critical movement, while antithetical to certain operations of power that enable modern psychological discourses, may also paradoxically catalyze new possibilities for using and meaningfully benefitting from these psychological tools and strategies during times of inequity and alienation. A dialectic may be observed in the forms of solitude and solidarity that are currently emerging.

Solitude and Solidarity

The term ‘solitude‘ might do with some conceptual clarification regarding its lineage and use. It derives from the old French solus which means “alone” or what we more colloquially refer to as “solo.” Additionally, the term has historical connotations with lonely places (e.g., wilderness, confines) although it has been increasingly used to refer to a state of being or feeling lonely. We can still clearly observe lexical traces between being ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’; between ‘solitude’ and ‘isolation’. Yet solitude has also long been recognized as a particular state of being that is conducive towards a portal or point of access to the sacred, eternal and ineffable order underlying the everyday dimension of existence. Some psychologists, most notably within psychodynamic tradition, have even argued that solitude is a necessary precondition for developing psychological attitudes such as introspection and creativity, which in turn function to counterbalance the prevailing fealty towards productivity, networking and competitive consumption. I do believe in the social merits of solitude. In particular, I believe the critical tradition may help us reconcile solitude with greater spirit towards public relations or gemeinshaft. Such thinking is desperately needed during this time of both massive social disruption and intense physical isolation.

Within the annals of early 19th century French social philosoph, the term ‘solidarityfirst appeared. It was used in a predictive sense (much like the term ‘singularity‘ is used today) to describe a point–ostensibly at the apotheosis of The Enlightenment–when individuals would fully develop their potentials in complete harmony with the group interest. Those times also saw a groundswell of belief in liberty, reason and technology as instruments towards engineering such a synthesis. Although this history did not bear out, the term itself remained an important signifier for cooperation and consciousness-raising. Etymologically, solidarity derives from ‘solid’, which we understand as something qualitatively dense and self-cohering; the word ‘solid’ stems from the root ‘sol’, which means “whole”. Obviously, being in a lonely state or place does not necessarily imply wholeness. In fact, many of our solitary activities may be considered fragmentary in nature. We might, for example, expend hours watching TV, shopping online or consuming in order to quell one or another of our multitudinous, inveterate appetites. However, in solitude we may also cultivate a presence or mode of being-in-the-world that is dense, world-gathering and self-affirming. This way of being is not easily achieved but has been practiced and sought after for probably as long as we have been visited by notions of the numinous.

I imagine the first humans witnessing a body in its lonely, morbid state after death. The fleshy coil no longer moves and yet the world continues around it. What has changed? In its solitariness, the corpse suddenly un-conceals to its witness a transcendent or supernatural mystery; pneuma. And this became the animating principle for all of life. Since that moment, we have been thrashing forward, wielding our dim light of consciousness into the wide, opaque tide of the Beyond. To become one with stillness and silence whilst breathing. For some, such as Freud, this impulse is not derivative but rather primal–a longing for return to our original oneness or “oceanic feeling“. Truths aside, we seem uniquely equipped with both the desire and the ability to seek wholeness within and through isolation.

Perhaps in light of global developments in social and material systems, we can no longer think of our minds or even our bodies in purely proximal and self-sufficient terms. As COVID-19 has made abundantly clear, our everyday, physical transactions are intimately connected and synchronous with those of others, spreading across the world. Physical distancing is a desperate attempt to assert some control over this reality but even in the most stringent cases, it is a temporary measure designed only to contain the very worst ravages of the virus.

In our collective grief, these current conditions do beg of us the questioning of new forms of spirituality. Just as the corpse of a kinfolk must have ignited the spiritual spark in our earliest ancestors, the sudden stillness and solitude of our current, transactional lives may silhouette an animating force or pneuma behind the movement of all modern life. This force is something we have to be very intentional about in the wake of global climate change, economic uncertainty and direct and indirect challenges upon our political systems and personal freedoms. We are not consigned to be passive and merely reactive. In solitude, we may reconsider our relationship to this whole–the intertwining network that collectively sustains our being by and through connections with each other. Our personal reach need not be very broad or deep–activism may root in myriad ways across multiple scales; it may involve reaching out to a friend, crowdfunding, creating social media art, making personal protective equipment for others, donating items where needed, childcare pooling amongst many other activities. The scale may be bigger.

The virus is morbid. The losses are tragic. And yet, in our grief–both for the past and for the future to come–we are thrust into the morbid; its obsidian reflecting the solidity of our own individual existence. For many who succumb in its undertow, this may be a deeply depressive experience. But it need not be that way. If the first call to spirit grew from the first cries of anguish, then we can grow from our solitude into new forms of solidarity. The world is weeping, watching, waiting and weaving ever together. The crises of these modern times will surely present us with such a vantage point from which to contemplate our finitude.

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