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Can We Sit Quietly in a Room Alone?

Our answer determines how we handle, and emerge from, the COVID-19 crisis.

We write this in solitude, near but far from each other. We write 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?

Throughout the crisis, so many words have converged 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.

Or at least one hundred days. Yet even that 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 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. 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 scientific study corroborated this, suggesting that people left alone with their thoughts are inclined to occupy themselves by giving themselves a mild electric shock.

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