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The paradox of  loneliness in a brave new world

The character of this century will be marked not by how we inhabit this new world, but by how it inhabits us

Published: 29th March 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th March 2020 10:49 PM   |  A+A-

When a pandemic strikes the world, the great apparatus of the state and the private sector lurches into motion. The government locks down cities, creates quarantine wards and the mettle of leaders are tested. The private sector keeps the country running by keeping supply chains alive as pharma giants get on steroids seeking a cure. However, there is no cure for the elephant in the room: loneliness.

The very fact that the concept of loneliness did not originate until the late 16th century is a comment on the social forces of the century we live in. In 1674, loneliness was one of the inclusions in John Ray’s glossary of infrequently used words. It just meant being “far from neighbours”. By the 20th century the concept of neighbourhood changed. Before real estate and political interests colluded to change national topographies, neighbourhood meant friendly. It defined intimate socially supportive spaces. Though it did neuter privacy to a degree, the services it offered compensated for the intrusion. The Biblical advice of ‘love thy neighbour’ made sense. People pooled in to help out when someone of their own was in trouble. Neighbourhoods kept loneliness at bay. No more.

Man is more than an island, he is a bubble. Outside that bubble, he had been interacting with other bubbles in an osmotic manner. The contagion has burst that bubble, making people more vulnerable to themselves. The comfort of things taken for granted is now beyond reach: restaurants, bars, malls, cinemas et al comprised the great modern neighbourhood where people sought the security of community while passing judgment on strangers and enjoying transient reassurance of ‘friendships’.Covid-induced isolation has brought the jack out of the box. Coping with quarantine means coping with existence in a closed space. Isolation is separating infected persons while quarantine is isolating people in apparent good health. Quarantine started in the 14th century to stop the plague. The word is derived from ‘quaranta giorni,’ which in Italian means 40 days; ships coming to Venice from infected countries had to be anchored offshore for 40 days before landing. 

Loneliness lasts longer than 40 days in a distant space, it is an epidemic in denial. WhatsApp epiphanies are highly recommending the positive effects of Coronavirus quarantine such as family bonding, mutual respect, fresh intimacy through rediscovery, rekindling of romance, a new work culture and honest introspection. This may be true to some extent, but forced intimacy also dredges up grudges—we are so used to loneliness that it is our unnoticed tenant. Anxiety about quarantine is caused by the horror of loneliness: for you, there is nothing outside except fear.The old world is gone even if Covid goes. New worlds are opening. The character of this century will be marked not by how we inhabit this new world, but by how it inhabits us.

Ravi Shankar
ravi@newindianexpress.com

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