BEING kept apart from others during the pandemic and losing control of how and when social interactions happen has forced people to reflect on solitude and the impact of loneliness. Responses to the continuing restrictions are deeply personal, and emotions related to being alone and individual identity can be surprising and sometimes fluctuate.
Government statistics record a rise in single-occupancy households: they numbered 7.7 million by 2017 and are estimated to reach 10.7 million by 2039. Charity research in December 2019 — less than three months before the first lockdown — suggested that three million people in Britain were lonely because of living alone.
Being alone when this is not chosen, or having solitude taken away when confined to a busy household, can have a significant effect on well-being.
The author Simon Parke, who has written about both solitude and Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic and anchoress who spent the years of the plague in chosen isolation, believes that an individual’s response to lockdown restrictions reflects their personality.
“The people who like lockdown are more inwardly geared towards being alone,” he says, “And it’s not necessarily about circumstances, but more about their interior life and interior terrain.
“Our relationship with solitude and lockdown is all tied up with our various psychologies. If we get our definition of ourselves from other people — which a lot of people do — if we’re not with other people and not being validated, we can wonder if we exist or not.
“Lockdown, for that sort of a psyche, is a bit of a crucifixion. . . It’s a serious problem. Whereas for other people, lockdown is much, much easier because other people are not the ones providing the validation.”
“Some people are loving lockdown because there’s lots of space,” he says, and they have “no fear of missing out. People will spend their social lives wondering if everyone else is having a better time than they are.
“And, of course, now they’re not. Some are very relieved. Actors I know who are really relaxed, for the first time in their lives, because they know no one else is auditioning eithe . . . They can be alone much more happily.”
For him, interior stillness is a marker of contentment with being alone. “The best Desert Fathers always expose the myth that if you’re alone, you’re still. The two don’t go together, necessarily. You might be alone, but your mind might be in a very busy place. You might as well be standing in Piccadilly Circus.
“The relationship between being alone and still is one the monastic community knows, because your mind is full of anxiety or rage. To be alone is not to be still. The important distinction is between loneliness and solitude. Sometimes they get used as interchangeable. Loneliness is being unhappily alone, and solitude is being happily alone.
“Solitude is an active walk towards stillness. It’s a peaceful place.”
YVONNE, a London-based artist who lives alone, has found embracing enforced solitude beneficial. “At the beginning of lockdown, I got super-excited about the amount of time I’d have to be, explore ideas, create, play, and design,” she says.
“A number of my responsibilities outside my home stopped, which gave me an opportunity to relax; and it’s gone on long enough to not have that feeling that you get when you go on holiday, just begin to relax, and then you go back to normal, and stress. Lockdown felt like a gift not to be wasted.”
She has welcomed the opportunities of her situation. “Making art, walking, building things, and learning new things sustain and delight me. I haven’t been in a place of quiet and curiosity for a long time — work, responsibilities, and general life are obviously not conducive to it, and trying to carve out consistent quality time in London can be near impossible.
“Having the time and space to re-centre, to engage in activities that bring life and joy, has been a process and a welcome ongoing mental and heart shift.
“If we were to return to the ‘old normal’, it’s fair to say I would be gutted. The old way didn’t work for me, and I’ll be keen to figure out a workable compromise that emphasises this way of living, and properly accommodates ‘the new normal’ rather than the other way around.”
But there is also a sense that even productive and refreshing solitude has limits. “Most of the lockdowns have been great,” Yvonne says, “but this third lockdown has been much harder.
“The monotony of days bleeding into one another, working with people, but only communicating via live-streaming, which has its own challenges, realising the need for exercise, and friendships seeming more disconnected as everyone struggles with their various situations — it’s taken a while, but I’m beginning to feel those extroverted pains.”
For Cathy, a writer who also lives in London, regular time alone was something that she built into her life before the pandemic. “Aloneness is not about loneliness, but about being able to relax, stop giving out energy, and feel in control,” she says.
“Although I’m a sociable person and enjoy spending time with others, I also really need a lot of alone time to maintain my energy and equilibrium. Without plenty of time alone every day, I quickly feel chaotic, unsettled, and anxious.”
Though she lives alone, she hasn’t found the increased time spent at home difficult.
“Most of my single friends who live alone have really struggled with the isolation and found it badly affecting their mental health and morale. However, it actually hasn’t bothered me.
“I haven’t felt lonely — occasional phone and Zoom chats with friends and family have been enough to sustain me. It’s nice to know that if I grow old alone, I’ll cope OK — socially, anyway.”
Her main concerns have been directed towards those who she would have been otherwise able to help, and the wider social impact of the pandemic, particularly on those for whom being alone is either a risk or an impossibility.
“At this time of year, I’d normally be helping out at a homeless winter night shelter — that shelter is not happening this year, and I worry about what’s happening to the people who would be guests . . . I worry about people trapped in poverty or violent households.”
Despite her enjoyment of increased time alone, a lack of spiritual connection has been part of the downside. “I am now increasingly feeling disconnected from my church community. Although people have worked hard to keep online services engaging, creative, and rich, after nearly a year they no longer hold my attention well, and I feel rather detached.”
Otherwise, she has found a new balance through lockdown. “We’re not built to live at high speed, as we are forced to do. I have found the slower pace of life, doing less and breathing more, and time alone, much better for my health and happiness.”
FOR others — perhaps the majority — the shift has been acute. The Office for National Statistics reports that 48 per cent of adults have taken a pandemic-related knock to their well-being. While the Government has set aside £7.5 million to tackle an expected “epidemic of loneliness”, experts are warning this may not be enough when one in ten charities faces bankruptcy.
The singer-songwriter Beth Keeping. from Surrey. has been single for eight years, a life that she had embraced and enjoyed: “I had a lot of time to devote to my music and my career and I had a really rich social life. During the pandemic the reality of what it means to be single has really hit me,” she says.
“A lot of my social life kind of collapsed when the pandemic hit, but I have appreciated my best friends a lot more than maybe I would have done if I hadn’t been single during the pandemic. We’ve really had to lean on one another.”
Ms Keeping, who is also campaign manager for Single Friendly Church, has found solidarity on social media, raising awareness that roughly 40 per cent of UK adults are single, but many feel unacknowledged by the government.
“I got so many messages from people saying that they really put into words what they’ve been feeling. Talking about singleness is always a little bit uncool, and I think certain misconceptions can come with it, but this whole year I’ve heard the Government talk about families, and households being a family unit.
“There was no real recognition of single people. . . Even with the support bubbles, they came in so late that people had gone 12 weeks without really touching or seeing another human being.
“I’ve lost a lot during this pandemic; so I’ve had to rely on God in ways that I haven’t ever before. There’s a real kind of beauty and grace in that. It gets you kind of closer to him. Trying to learn that he’s enough.”
THE Revd Dr Julie Gittoes, Vicar-designate of St Mary and Christ Church, Hendon, in north London, finds that being alone in parish ministry has created its own challenges. “The boundaries between our working life, and our home life — our private space, and our public space — gets blurred,” she says.
The Revd Dr Julie Gittoes
“And I think that can be quite draining when you’re on duty. You’re bringing work and such into your home in a way that you wouldn’t normally. If you’re constantly being vigilant because your attention is on another, you’re depleting your own reserves of rest and refreshment, because you can never completely switch off.
“I know, for a number of my clergy colleagues, what they miss is the access to the hinterland: the thing that fed them in terms of their preaching and ministry — that engagement with wider culture and the things that nourish us, whether that’s sport, or whether that is art, whether it’s theatre.”
An additional challenge came with the need to provide care for a family member, reflecting findings from Care UK, which reports that 81 per cent of carers have taken on more care in the pandemic.
“Early on in lockdown, my mom had had quite major surgery, and I went and stayed with her for ten days. As someone who’s not a parent, the thing that really struck me in that first week was that I wasn’t really sleeping, because I was consciously and subconsciously listening out for any movement, if she was going to the bathroom.
“If that is your full-time role, even your resting moments have that alertness to what someone else might need. That blurring of public and private means that sometimes solitude isn’t restful.”
A feeling of being alone can be acute, even when not living alone, if certain kinds of connection are missing. Losing the full experience of a church community has been felt keenly by Sybil, a widow and retired nurse living with her daughter and grandchildren in Islington, north London, where she has a long history of involvement in two churches.
Sybil has appreciated efforts made to stay connected which go beyond a broadband connection. “One of the preachers at St Mary’s, he comes and visits me on a bike. We have a chat outside,” Sybil explains. She watches religious services on the BBC every Sunday.
Sybil and her late husband, Hugh, came to the UK from Guyana in the 1950s, and shared a love of travel. “A loving husband, I tell you: always peaceful. He was so lovely. We went everywhere —.Italy, Germany, Paris. . .”
Sybil’s happier memories take her back to communal events: weddings and baptisms. “I used to love my parties,” she says. “Whenever we have a party, we have pepperpot. That is lovely.” It’s just one dish that reminds her of Guyana.
It’s these happier times that her grandson asks her to remember when she feels alone. “He says, ‘Remember them and feel happy.’ He’s only 18, and that’s the way he’s thinking, and that’s good,” she says. “I put my trust and faith in God. He will handle everything.”
CHURCH community is also important to Alice*, a clinical psychologist in London, who works with children and families at a hospital. Like 25 per cent of families in the UK, Alice is a single parent. She is raising her toddler, Elliott*.
“I think I’m quite good on my own,” Alice says. “But also I think single people have to get used to managing by themselves. We don’t have that privilege of always having someone else around.”
Spending lockdown at home with Elliott reminds her of a crucial time that they spent together: the first few weeks after Elliott’s adoption. In 2019, single adopters represented 11 per cent of all adoptions. It is unlikely that any of them imagined the circumstances that 2020 would present.
Even in normal times, being alone is part of the expectation that goes with adoption. “You’re advised for at least the first six week to not really mix,” Alice explains. “You’re supposed to not really have anyone in your home, because you want your child to know it’s you and them and there’s no confusion about who’s coming and who’s going. That can be quite isolating.”
It was in those early days of motherhood that members of her congregation provided a lifeline. “They were very good at doing a meal rota for several weeks,” Alice remembers. “I think it’s quite common in churches when people have a baby. You get lots of bolognese.”
Now, Alice’s church is helping her and Elliot through lockdown. “There has been something lovely about the simplicity of life,” she says. “That felt like a real gift. There’s been times when it’s unbelievably stressful, but you can also just hang out. It’s really lovely to have a little cuddle with a little person.”
FOR those who had been used to living extrovert lives, pandemic restrictions have brought challenges. Pursuing a career in broadcasting and journalism, the communication strategist Genelle Aldred thrives on human connection.
“There’s so much about life I miss,” she wrote on social media in January. “I miss the feeling of the heat giving you a big hug when you land in a hot country and get off the plane. I miss saying no to invites because you can see them ‘anytime!’. I miss get-togethers and random encounters.”
“Lockdown has been hard because lockdown is the complete anti of connection,” Ms Aldred says. “We spend most of our time communicating with people — not with our words, but with our actions — with the way we make a face, the way we move our body.
“I think, although we have less connection, in some ways people have been more connected in terms of a real truthful connection that’s more vulnerable, because we’re all going through the same thing.
“So, I think I’ve probably had some really honest conversations with friends, and have assessed relationships in a way that I would not have done if life was carrying on and I was moving at a certain pace.
“The pace has slowed. It gives you more of an opportunity to truly connect. I would say that probably I feel more connected to some of my friends than I would have done before when life was busy and I was spread much thinner.”
She can see positives in solitude, too. “If I had a feeling about aloneness, I would just say: loneliness doesn’t need to be lonely. I’ve never really felt ‘alone’ alone — not often. Because, one, I have my faith with me, and two, I feel quite connected to the people that I love the most.”
Canon Andrew Davison, Starbridge Senior Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge, describes how his feelings changed during the course of the pandemic. Initially, he was “buoyant”, as the first wave drew him into shared purpose with his neighbours and local community, where he could offer practical help and support.
Michael RickardThe Revd Professor Andrew Davison
“I’m good in a crisis,” he notes, recalling “camaraderie” and “almost a wartime spirit”. Discovering local walks and feeling “plugged into my locality” and being able to make a difference provided grounding and connection.
The change of seasons and arrival of the third wave have been more challenging, as the need for a make-do community response receded. His intention to be influenced by the parable of the Good Samaritan and not cross the road to avoid somebody in need was altered by the reality that “Now, the charitable thing is to cross the road to avoid someone.”
He describes feeling “ground down” in December and found wisdom in Letters of Direction: Thoughts on the spiritual sife by the Abbé Henri de Tourville, the 19th-century French priest and social scientiest, from whom Canon Davison picked up the benefit of taking an external perspective on his own situation.
He describes the benefits outlined by de Tourville of trying “to deal with yourself like you would deal with somebody else”. He notes that “people are almost always more perceptive with others than they are with themselves.”
He found that talking to himself as he might advise a student or colleague helped him to focus and decide what to do differently, asking himself: “What three concrete things would you say you should do?” and answering:
“I would say: set your alarm to get up earlier in the morning, make you plan your day and have a sense of structure, make sure you take plenty of exercise, think of a project you’d like to do. I listened my way through various sets of symphonies; so I got out of that slump.
“We can be more creative and more acute advising other people than we are with ourselves. Treating ourselves as ‘other’ can be quite a good way into unlocking the practical things that we can do.”
He is keen that society should not revert to its previous state once the urgency of the crisis has passed. He remembers being impressed by the homily delivered by the Pope on 27 March 2020, which framed the pandemic as a time of judgement, but not judgement from God. Rather it was “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not”.
He has had his own times spent in reflection and reassessment of what matters to him as he has lived alone through the pandemic, and hopes that there will be wider opportunities for rethinking life’s and society’s priorities.
The original meaning of the word “apocalypse” as “unveiling” is significant to him, he says. “If we’ve been through this apocalyptic period, then let’s hope that it is apocalyptic in that etymological sense of pulling the veil back and helping us to see what matters.”
*Not their real names