Can You Sit Quietly in a Room Alone?

By Uriel Abulof & Shirley Le Penne


A generation of technologically-enhanced loneliness should have prepared us well for social distancing. It hasn’t. Humans still want solidarity and intimacy, but to truly gain both we should relearn to embrace solitude. Now might be a good time.

[An abridged version of this post appears in our Psychology Today blog, DoubleEdged]

We wrote this in solitude, near but far from each other. We wrote this to connect. Connect the dots in our mind, connect one mind to another, connect our minds to hard realities, connect with others who may find these words meaningful. Are they?

So many words these days converge under that trite title, “[love and hate | faith | presidential politics | smart travel] in the Time of Coronavirus.” This too is an attempt to connect – to Gabriel García Márquez’s beloved novel – and to form a framework to channel our worries and wonders. Still, when making sense of this crisis, another Márquez novel provides an equally fitting title: One Hundred Years of Solitude.


Yet even one hundred days might be too much when we so dearly want, need, to connect to others and their experiences, now that they are so much like our own. Now that death feels closer, we want to feel – and make others feel – that we are in this together, not alone either in despair or in hope. When locked down Italians sing and play music apart but together, showing the virus what viral really means, it’s hard to miss the human spirit trying to transcend, through sound, the mess we’re in. Even Bono was inspired enough to release a decent song. Welcome back, it’s been a while. That all this, we know, is part of our innate need to belong, and be needed too, matters less. It’s beautiful.


But it might have a darker side. When seeking social bonds so badly, do we not flee from what “the Time of Coronavirus” urges us most – to be alone, with only our thoughts to keep us company? That itself is a troubling thought. We are terrified of meeting ourselves in a dark alley. “All of humanity's problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal in his Pensées [Thoughts]. And a recent scientific study corroborates this: people would rather give themselves an electric shock than be left alone with their thoughts. We’d rather hurt ourselves than follow our “two-in-one” inner discourse, that intra-personal dance of critical reflection.


Solitude is vital for true solidarity, which is not just about feeling good, but about doing good, together; and we cannot hope to figure out what is good without, well, thinking about it. Do we flee reflective solitude, fed as it might be by new technologies that offer connection without affection – and without affliction? After all, why flee from ourselves electronically through pain when we can do the same through pleasure?


For a generation now, technology has helped us come together, but also, if we so wished, escape ourselves and others, undermining true solidarity – and intimacy. If social media has notoriously left us “alone together… expecting more from technology and less from each other,” it has done so because being truly with ourselves, or fully with others, is often painful. And so we sought solidarity on Twitter, traded intimacy for Tinder. With shining devices by our (bed)sides, we need not be troubled by vulnerable intimacy with ourselves or our fellows; such pain can now be discarded with a hefty dose of dopamine.


Still, throughout those years, another pain kicked in: our “skin hunger” for one, but more so the phantom pain of the missing limb of intimacy that we ourselves severed from our body, and soul. Have we learned nothing from Harry Harlow’s experiments, where infant macaques facing a wire mother holding a bottle with food, and a cloth mother holding no food, repeatedly clung to the latter? Perhaps we wished we had evolved beyond this “contact comfort” to “creature comfort.” Perhaps we should be more careful what we wish for.


The phantom pain was easier to manage when we could tell ourselves that we might regain intimacy at any moment. Coronavirus shatters that delusion, brutally. And we are scared. In Love in the Time of Cholera, Florentino Ariza waits five long, lovelorn decades for Fermina Daza to love him again. It seems that we can hardly wait five days to reconnect. Teased by the thought that what we wasted might be lost forever, we now desperately seek to (re)connect to others.

But having lost ourselves, can we find others? Without embracing our own, intrapersonal “two-in-one,” how can we truly embrace others to become “one-in-two” – and one for another? 🌿🍁

Or perhaps we don’t want to. At our university, Cornell, like many others worldwide, virtual instruction replaced education in the flesh. Will teachers and students emerge from it wondering why we ever needed that corporeal connection to begin with, or realize that without it we are becoming “machines, learning”?


Perhaps we should go back to the etymology of “crisis,” that is “decision,” to use this viral crisis as a chance to make a better choice. If real solidarity, let alone intimacy, requires some reflective solitude – if “know thyself” is needed to “know thyother” – the reverse might also be true; maybe we can regain ourselves also by truly connecting to others. So next time you hear locked-down Italians play Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor, let yourself inhale that divine harmony, then sit quietly in a room, alone.



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