Due to circumstances beyond my control (and what other kind of circumstances are there, anyway?), I recently had to spend a few days alone. Even as an introvert I’ve never enjoyed “batching it” for long, perhaps because my imagination is so untamed as to belong in a zoo. Nevertheless, you learn things with time alone. Particularly in a pandemic. I’m not inclined to seek the company of strangers, and I don’t know many people here in town yet. So I introspect. Of course, Zoom and FaceTime keep me in touch with others, but I can’t help remembering a PBS special I saw about Admiral Richard Byrd. Byrd famously self-isolated himself in a one-room shack in Antartica for five months when weather made travel impossible. His contact with the outside world was limited to electronic communication.
Byrd had been seeking the ultimate isolation. It turned out to be psychological torture. Even those of us who are introverts are social creatures. We just need smaller doses than most. I can’t recall the name of the PBS series that Byrd was part of, but I do recall the profound impact it made on me. I was teaching at the time and there was another series on PBS that I was discussing with my fellow professors and it was because of this other series that I had the television on at all. The Byrd program came next and eclipsed the former. (We essentially lived without television in our Nashotah House days. Cable wasn’t available and trying to get reception with an inadequate aerial antenna led to frustratingly snowy, dizzying reception.)
We like to have other people around. I grew up with siblings and time alone was a rare commodity. I left home to live in a dorm with roommates for four years. After that apartments in the Boston area often felt isolating, even with housemates. It was a time for introspection. By the time I moved to Edinburgh I was married and I’ve not really looked forward to my time alone since then. November typically brings AAR/SBL with it’s five nights alone in a hotel room. I get by because I’m so exhausted by the event. Nevertheless I often think of Admiral Byrd and how this mentally strong man began to break down under the strain of not seeing another person for five months. We need each other. The pandemic has been teaching us lessons of self-reliance, but hopefully it’s also teaching us to reach out to others. Even America can feel like Antartica sometimes.