Since 1937, the Army has maintained a ceaseless vigil over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The Tomb stands above the grave of an unknown World War I soldier. His body was exhumed from an unmarked battlefield burial in France and brought back to the United States. A cannon fired when his casket was lowered, long ago, to his final resting place in the crypt. And for decades he has been watched over by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry—“The Old Guard”—every hour of every day, regardless of weather conditions.
It’s a powerful image: “You will never be alone.”
In this country, we embrace individualism. We admire independence. But we don’t accept loneliness.
Yet, loneliness is on the rise and has been even before the coronavirus era. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 13 percent of all households were single-person homes in 1960. By 2018, that number grew to 28 percent.
Living alone, on its own, is not necessarily an indicator of loneliness. Until the last few months, home was a base where one could spring from and enjoy camaraderie at work or meet up with friends at a favorite establishment—satisfying the need for human contact. Lately, for far too many, home has been an isolation zone. No work. No visitors. No human contact. And having hundreds, or even thousands, of friends on social media is no substitute for in-person connections.
We know how tough loneliness can be on people, but we swiftly adopted isolation tactics anyway. COVID-19, and the immediate threat of health care systems being overwhelmed, created nearly full cooperation of an entire country to self-isolate. But while 40 – 50 days to “slow the spread” may have been necessary, some want another four or five months of continued restrictions.
The ability or strength to ward off loneliness is one of those human characteristics that is different for all of us.
For some, the need for human connection is strong and they’re ready to return to pre-coronavirus life. They want the freedom to go where they want to go, do what they want to do, see who they want to see, and not be muzzled with a mask. Successfully battling loneliness is most important to them.
Other individuals prefer not to leave their property and will wear a mask doing outdoor gardening—just in case a neighbor should happen to get too close. They have a high threshold for tolerating loneliness, and their priority is keeping themselves and their family safe.
Many are somewhere in between. The virus has likely permanently changed some behaviors. The way they interact with others may never be fully restored to pre-coronavirus days, but they’re ready to go out in the world again.
All of these ways of dealing with loneliness can be respected. Nobody needs to be corona-shamed, no matter what their personal thoughts are on isolation.
But it’s good to recognize that loneliness that comes from isolation is real. Some aren’t wired for surviving a long lockdown.
The absolute, worst thing you can do to a prison inmate is throw him or her into solitary confinement. It’s not the physical environment that makes it the ultimate punishment. The solitary confinement cell is only somewhat worse than the prisoner’s regular cell. The trauma comes from removing all human contact with the prisoner.
It’s a brutal statement: “You are alone.”
The lockdown was necessary for a while. Sufficient access to health care had to be assured. But as long as there are empty beds in hospital rooms and unemployed health care workers, it’s hard to advocate for continued and forced restrictions.
All this loneliness is not our way.