As I write this reflection we are entering the ninth week of social lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic… and not just us but the entire world!
That’s something that it can be difficult to comprehend. An infected bat bit a chicken in China (if that’s still the current theory) and within weeks of someone eating that chicken the virus had spread throughout the world infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands – a situation that may continue until an effective vaccine is found and is made available worldwide. In the meantime it may be possible to safely and gradually ease certain aspects of the lockdown itself, but the need for a degree of social distancing and other precautionary measures isn’t going to go away without that vaccine. For however long the lockdown continues, and to whatever degree, how well are we dealing with it?
Much, of course, will depend on your situation. If you are sharing the lockdown with other family members, you won’t be experiencing the same degree of social isolation as someone living on their own. On the other hand there may be days when you would gladly swap places with them! If there are just two of you in a house, you possibly have the best of both worlds in that you are not on your own, but if either of you needs your own space at times there’s plenty of it for either of you. And if you are living on your own, much will depend on how comfortable you are with your own company and what things you ordinarily do, and are continuing to do, from day to day to occupy your time.
Being part of a family in lockdown isn’t necessarily the best of those three possible situations even though you are with other people. Usually it would be rare for everyone to be home at the same time: one or both adults may be working, children are at school for much of the day or out with friends or at their houses. But suddenly everyone finding themselves restricted to the house all day every day, all week every week, is a situation they won’t ever have had to deal with or adjust to before, and I’m sure the novelty of it will have soon worn off. How flexible has each person within the family been in adapting to the new demands the situation has placed on them – how much give and take has it required? What coping mechanisms has each person in the family had to employ given that they couldn’t just go somewhere else for a while? And everyone simply shutting themselves off in their own rooms wouldn’t have been the answer. Family dynamics, relationships, qualities, strengths, faults and limitations will have been much more on display than in normal circumstances.
Sociologists and psychologists have never had a more perfect “laboratory” for studying inter-personal relationships across cultures, nationalities, social classes, and genders – and in such vast numbers – as they have had during this lockdown. It has provided the sort of situations they would typically use to study the suitability of people to endure long severe winters confined in science stations in Antarctica; or whether prospective astronauts would be able to withstand long periods in space in the limited accommodations of the International Space Station; or how well prospective crew members might deal with the claustrophobic conditions aboard submarines deep in the oceans for months at a time. These weeks of lockdown have been a doddle by comparison – at least you could go outside for a walk which none of them would able to.
Some of the things we’ve said about families in lockdown will also apply to couples even though there are only two people involved. At the same time, because there are only two, and because the relationship between them is one they have established possibly over a number of years, that same dynamic doesn’t need to change. They may see a little more of each other than they are used to because one or other of them can’t work under the lockdown, or they can’t pursue the different social activities that might have taken them out of the house separately from day to day, but they might now get a lot more things done around the house together, and they can still find their own space if they need to – maybe just out in the garden if the weather is nice.
The situation of someone living on their own during the lockdown may not be quite as bad as people might think – depending on how content that person is with their own company. They are on their own all the time anyway and are quite used to keeping themselves occupied and entertained, and so adapting to the lockdown may not have been all that difficult. The only real difference may have been not being able to go out and not having the same face-to-face contact with family members or friends that they would have done ordinarily. But as long as they were able to shop for food or have someone do it for them, and someone to check up on them from time to time, they’ve hopefully managed very well.
In all of my time as a priest I have spent most of those years living on my own – as opposed to sharing a house with another priest of the parish. Thankfully I’m quite happy with my own company, which is just as well given that some days I might not see or speak to another person all day once I’ve celebrated morning Mass. And so these weeks of social isolation haven’t been an entirely new experience or one that has been difficult for me to adjust to – other than only being able to go out for essential shopping and not being able to visit friends. It’s been good to be able to continue celebrating Mass each day and all the more so to have parishioners join me via the internet and there are always things to do to keep the parish ticking along.
I couldn’t help comparing the experience of lockdown with the 30-day Ignatian retreat I made many years ago. The central component of the retreat is what St Ignatius calls the “desert experience”. Throughout the thirty days you’re not allowed to talk to anyone except God and your retreat director; you’re not allowed to watch the television or listen to the radio or read a newspaper (you therefore have no idea what is going on in the world); and you can’t use the telephone or, these days, the internet. I had never gone so long without all those things which I considered to be a necessary part of daily life. Some aspects of the lockdown (in terms of the things we have had to give up or go without) have been a little like that, but at least we have had the telephone, FaceTime, conference calls, and music and television, so if anything it has been better than the 30-day retreat, except longer… a lot longer! And, of course, we are all living under the threat of the virus – which is the reason for the lockdown in the first place.
The other thing I would say about the desert experience of the retreat – and this might be important for us as we seek to fill the isolation of the lockdown – is that you begin to fill your day with right things to do, things that make it possible to be quiet and to be alone with God, to pray and to meditate, to reflect and to listen. Normally we are too busy and our world is too full and too noisy to do any of those things without a tremendous effort on our part and possibly on God’s part also. In our current situation, whether we are on our own, or with a spouse, or with our family (which understandably might mean we don’t have as much time to ourselves as we might like), we have the opportunity to turn this negative experience into something positive and good for us spiritually, and hopefully something we will choose to continue after all this is over. That 30-day retreat was a tremendous spiritual experience that has stayed with me ever since, teaching me, amongst other things, that there can be life and growth even in the “desert”. Hopefully we can ensure that the same is true of the lockdown.
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